Commentary on Acts 2:14a, 22-32
The lectionary readings for the Sundays after Easter contain passages from the Acts of the Apostles rather than a reading from the Hebrew Bible. In particular, the passages for the Second and Third Sundays after Easter come from Peter’s Pentecost speech. The main themes—resurrection, baptism, and the Holy Spirit—are introduced in the first eleven verses of Acts, which will not be read until the Ascension of the Lord. The Fourth Sunday after Easter narrates the life of the new community immediately following the Pentecost event. Acts 1–2 are an extended prologue for the rest of the book. In Acts, Luke instructs Jesus’ followers, especially new Gentile believers, in the foundational stories of the tradition. The history of God’s relationship to Israel arises as a major theme just as it does in Luke’s Gospel.
The reading for the Second Sunday of Easter is Acts 2:14a, followed by 2:22-32. Verse 14a will reprise in each of the next two Sundays as the introduction to the reading. Depending upon the translation, this opening verse seems to indicate that Luke was speaking primarily to men: “Men of Judea …” The Greek word aner, man, applied only to free, adult males in the Roman world. Indeed, in Acts, Luke uses the term aner more than it is used anywhere else in the New Testament, some 100 times. This is where an understanding of Luke’s literary context is imperative. Luke is drawing upon writing conventions of his world, in which historical speeches were addressed to men. Despite this apparent bias, we must imagine that women and children as well as enslaved persons were present in Peter’s audience. In the Gospel, Luke describes whole families traveling to Jerusalem for the holy days and festivals (Luke 2:41-44). Moreover, when we reach the end of the speech in Acts 2 verses 41 and 47, Luke uses a masculine plural form for “three thousand were added,” and “those being saved” (New Revised Standard Version respectively), indicating a group of mixed gender, age, and status.
Peter’s speech begins with a quotation from Joel 2:28-32, which connects the events of Pentecost to God’s actions declared by the prophet. This history of Israel is then connected to the story of Jesus. Peter emphasizes Jesus’ human origins, as a person from the outlying region of Galilee, but nevertheless mighty in deeds of power, signs, and wonders, all made possible through the power of God. Even the crucifixion was according to God’s plan, the intention and direction of God throughout human history, which encompassed the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. God’s plan also included “raising him up, having freed him from death” (2:24, New Revised Standard Version). The Greek in this verse has a slightly different spin from the New Revised Standard Version translation: Jesus is freed from the “pangs of death.” “Pangs” is usually used to describe child birth in Greek, thus in this description, the death of Jesus also inaugurates new life.
Turning again to the Hebrew Bible, Peter’s speech connects Jesus to his ancestor David. Verses 25-28 draw upon Psalm 16:8-11 in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which Luke used as his Bible and quotes from. As with the quotation from Joel, Luke is demonstrating that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises. However, unlike David, who remained bound to death in a tomb, God raised Jesus to new life. This portion of the sermon concludes with another theme that takes us back to the opening verses of Acts and will continue throughout the book: witnessing, which is the proclamation of the story of Jesus.
As we preach and teach these stories from Acts, we have to take care that the good news of God’s actions of raising up Jesus to new life, do not become bad news for the descendants of Jesus’ own religious community: our Jewish neighbors. The hearers of Peter’s speech in Luke’s telling of the story of Pentecost are first century Jews who are in Jerusalem for the festival of Shavu’ot (a Hebrew word meaning “weeks,” a Jewish harvest festival, also known in the first century as Pentecost). Thus, when Peter uses the plural form of “you” in this speech, “you crucified,” (verse 23), he is speaking to the Jews of his day in Jerusalem. Luke lays a share of the culpability for Jesus’ death at the feet of Jesus’ own people.
However, as Barbara E. Reid explains, Acts of the Apostles is not an historical account, but represents fifty years of theological reflection on the meaning of the death of Jesus. It is influenced by the historical contexts and questions of the Christian communities that comprised Luke’s audience. Both Romans and Jews in the early first century bore responsibility for the death of Jesus. Jesus antagonized the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, while Rome had the mechanism and laws by which rebels could be put to death. While ultimately Jesus did not pose a significant threat to Rome, Caiaphas, the high priest, may have convinced Pilate that it was best to remove Jesus from the scene. Caiaphas and Pilate likely had a relationship that was mutually beneficial, and Jesus’ fate may have succumbed to that relationship.1
In our twenty-first century context, the good news is that God’s plan for humanity’s history—the trajectory that began in the Hebrew Bible and moved through the story of Jesus and the witness of the apostles, continues in our own time. But again, a word of caution, this is not an “all things happen for a reason” theology (see Kate Bowler’s writings for more on this topic), but is as Reid states, “God’s will for all persons to be freed and reconciled.”2 The passages for the coming weeks make it clear that “all means all,” and our worship and community life are the nexus for God’s actions.
- This follows Reid’s excursus on the death of Jesus in “The Acts of the Apostles,” in New Interpreter’s Study Bible ed. Walter J. Harrelson (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 1959.
- Reid, “Acts,” 1959.
April 16, 2023