Commentary on Acts 2:14a, 22-32
The book of Acts is the narrated story of God’s mighty acts among early communities of believers (in Judea and in the diaspora).
God promised to pour out God’s Spirit without favoritism in the last days. God promised to send God’s Spirit upon a group of disciples gathered in a second story room. And like opaque fog crawling under, over, above, and around the San Francisco Bay Bridge, God’s Spirit aggressively crammed itself into that room and sat on every man and woman present.
Pentecost constituted an intentional act of God, just like the resurrection of Jesus. Assuming the role of spokesperson, Peter speaks plainly (apophthengomai): God raised Jesus. God performed miracles, wonders and signs through Jesus (verse 22b). Through the anointing of God’s Holy Spirit, the apostles Peter, Paul and others testify about what God did in Jesus and what God is doing with, for and before them.
Peter’s speech focuses on the activity of God. Grammatically, the vocative case signifies the several ways that Peter addresses his audience: “Jewish men and all those sojourning in Jerusalem (verse 14a),” “Israelite men” (verse 22a), and “men, brothers” (verse 29). Although the Greek grammar is exclusive, we know from 1:14 that women were also present at Pentecost.
Those gathered share a religious commitment (some are proselytes, 2:10) and/or an ethnicity, a sacred event in a sacred space and time, a history of nation building and nationalism as the children of Israel/Jacob and of God, and a fictive kinship. The group shared as well in the signs, wonders, and miracles that God performed in and through and beyond Jesus. Historically, God through Moses performed signs and wonders to engender the liberation of their foreparents from Egyptian bondage and for freedom to worship God.
While Peter makes clear what God has done, he also explicitly declares the culpability of his audience: “You took away (aniereo) [Jesus’ life] when you fastened him to the cross” (verse 23b). But God countered this annihilating deed when God raised Jesus, freeing him from death’s power (verse 24); God had a plan (verse 23). The declaration that “God raised Jesus” was a proclamation or kergyma (from kerusso, the Greek verb meaning I preach/proclaim) among early believers in Jesus as God’s Messiah (4:10; 5:30; Galatians 1:1; Romans 4:24, 8:34, 10:9).
When God raised Jesus, God “destroyed the birth pangs of death.” It is paradoxical to connect birth pangs with death. Perhaps, this statement signifies how God robbed death of the re-creative power associated with birth. Women experience birth pangs as life struggles to emerge from their wombs; painfully, life gives way to life. But by removing the “birth pangs of death” (odinas tou thanatou), God assures that death would have no tentacles or reach beyond the womb of the grave or outside the phenomenon of death itself. And death and its accompanying pain need not and will not last forever.
Pitch your tent in hope
Because of what God has done in Jesus, David testified that he would not be shaken, but he will rejoice. David lived in hope that he also would not be abandoned to Hades. It is because of what God has done in Jesus that we can “pitch our tents (kataskenoo) in hope” (verse 26); no matter where we locate ourselves (or where others, including death, locate us) we are not beyond God’s reach. Instructively, the biblical patriarchs did not pitch their tents where altars had already been built, but they often erect altars wherever they pitched their tents (Genesis 12:8; 26:25; Exodus 33:7). God is omnipresent and so is divine hope. In this sense, we are always the visitors, the tent-pitchers, and God is the permanent resident. Reaching down, God snatched Jesus from death’s eternal embrace. God would not let Hades corrupt God’s son.
“We are all witnesses (martyres)” that God raised Jesus. As witnesses, God gives the disciples this new proclamation. Jesus lives because God raised him! God does not ask his witnesses to die in Acts, but to speak boldly (paresia) about how God acted and continues to act (4:31; 9:27; cp. 4:29). As witnesses of Jesus, we too ought to live and be glad; to promote life and gladness among our sisters and brothers. We are connected.
God saves on both sides of the cross
God never ceases to be God even when a part of God’s self, God’s only son, is crucified. God does not sanction murder or death, but God risks God’s own self and God’s son so that others might be saved. God rescues from death and corruption both those who build and/or erect crosses and those for whom crosses are built. We build crosses for others out of ignorance and from a failure to recognize our common humanity. Septima Clark (1898-1987), educator and civil rights activist, may have had certain kinds of “cross-building” in mind when she wrote:
[O]ne can never really see into the heart, the mind, the impenetrable soul of another. Yet when I read of the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby, … the murder of Emmett Till, the lynching of Charles Mack Parker, the suffering of Strom Thurmond’s wife, and quite recently the anguished search of Governor Nelson Rockefeller for his son, I saw faces, white faces, lowly and high born, impoverished, affluent–all merging into one face of infinite pain forged in the crucible of suffering…But I see another face, kindly, loving and to me a lovely brown face out of days long gone; and seeing my father’s face and feeling my father’s love for all his fellows, I am moved deeply. My heart hurts for those lonely and lost, those frantic to find a future endurable, those who have stood by helpless and watched loved ones being destroyed by merciless power structures and unprincipled individuals who were destined instead in the providence of God to be their brothers [and sisters].1
The final vocative in Peter’s speech, “Men, brothers [and sisters]” (verse 29), signifies our connectedness. Regardless of who builds the cross or hammers the nails, as sisters and brothers we are in this thing together. Are we building crosses for and crucifying one another or do we occupy ourselves with laying common foundations? Our common ground lies in what God did and is doing among us. God promises, sends, and pours out power; God destroys death and death dealing; God lifts up and exalts life; and God calls us to do likewise.
1 Septima Clark, “Echo in my Soul” in Can I get a Witness. Prophetic Religious Voices of African Ameircan Women. An Anthology, ed. Marcia Y. Riggs (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1997), 158.