Commentary on Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Moments of recognition in film and literature almost always stir an audience.
Characters stumble into realizing whom they really love or who has committed a crime, and from those points storylines head in new directions. We know from our own lives that recognitions–those “aha!” moments we experience–create pivot points. When recognition happens, things cannot stay the same. New possibilities emerge.
This scripture passage describes a recognition that springs from an accusation. When we put ourselves in the sandals of Peter’s audience in Jerusalem, we quickly realize that there was an absence of good news in the sermon he delivered on Pentecost. As I noted in my commentary on last Sunday’s reading–which this Sunday’s deliberately recalls via the clumsy inclusion of v. 14a and v. 36–Peter’s sermon strikes a contrast between what his audience did with Jesus and what God did with him. As Peter says in v. 36, “This Jesus whom you crucified,” “God has made him both Lord and Messiah.” Although most of the sermon describes God’s exaltation of Jesus to a position of royal authority from which Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit, its function within the wider scene is accusatory. It underscores how the audience’s intentions concerning Jesus differed from God’s.
We must be clear about this accusation. Peter indicts a broad range of people in Acts 2–Jews from a variety of places. But it is hardly reasonable to assume that fifty days earlier exactly all of these men were directly complicit in handing Jesus over to the Romans and calling for his execution. Luke’s Gospel notes that many in Jerusalem lamented Jesus’ death (Luke 23:27, 48); only a limited number of influential Jerusalem elites demanded his prosecution. Peter cannot be placing primary blame for Jesus’ death on all Jews in general nor asserting that everyone in Jerusalem shares the specific guilt of the leadership. He indicts a Jewish audience simply because he is addressing a Jewish audience at this point in the narrative. At the same time, he spreads responsibility for Jesus’ death–but only partial responsibility, according to Acts 2:23–widely among his hearers. In this way, he generalizes the rejection of Jesus and Jesus’ claims to authority (compare Luke 17:25). Although there were specific instigators and executioners, the rejection of Jesus that led to his death had many dimensions, including a broad sense of ignorance (compare Acts 13:27). Humanity as a whole failed to recognize what God was doing through Jesus; his resurrection and exaltation now leave humanity without excuse.
No people in the audience dispute Peter’s claim that they bear responsibility for the Messiah’s death. Understanding the accusation that they are in conflict with God’s purposes and recognizing the implicit threat of judgment, they interrupt Peter to ask how to set things right. In response, at last, Peter provides good news. His words in vv. 38-40 recall Luke’s description of John the Baptizer, someone else who preached imminent judgment (Luke 3:3-18). The things Peter says, however, take on particular meaning in light of the story of Jesus that sits between Luke 3 and Acts 2.
What do Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation demand from Peter’s audience? First, Peter calls for repentance. Popular understandings of repentance often define it in moral categories: as reformed behavior, expressions of remorse, or the rectification of wrongs. But this is not the term’s primary meaning, and Peter hardly means this in Acts 2. The word metanoia (and the verb metanoeō, meaning “repent”) refers to a changed mind or a new understanding. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus require from ignorant humanity a new understanding of who he is and an embrace of his authority to exercise God’s rule within creation. What God has done through Christ creates a point of recognition about God and Christ. This new understanding, of course, leads to new possibilities.
Second, Peter tells his hearers to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” so that they may be delivered from their sins. (The expression rendered in many English translations as “forgiveness of sins” employs the noun aphesis, which means “release”–perhaps a more powerful and comprehensive notion than what is conveyed by “forgiveness.”) In the wake of Jesus’ resurrection, baptism symbolizes more than washing away defilement. It becomes itself an image of resurrection, of new life emerging from death. Peter does not elaborate on the significance of baptism, but the rite’s explicit connection to the name of Jesus Christ is consistent with other New Testament texts that describe baptism as a means of participating in Christ’s own death and resurrection (see, for example, Rom 6:3-11). Jesus’ “name” designates him as the source of salvation, according to Peter’s sermon (see Acts 2:21).
Third, Peter declares that the Holy Spirit is promised to all whom God calls. This is the same Spirit of power that Jesus said God promised (Luke 24:49) and would empower Jesus’ followers (Acts 1:8). The presence of the Spirit testifies that salvation is at hand, for it is the same Spirit that was so active in Jesus’ own ministry (see, for example, Luke 4:14-19).
Finally, the new order of things instituted by Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation allows for rescue from all that is debilitating about this corrupt–literally, “crooked”–generation. Jesus occasionally spoke of “this generation” to designate a general condition among humanity that cannot perceive the activity of God in its midst (see, for example, Luke 11:29-32, 50-51). The primary issue concerns humanity’s faithlessness and opposition to God. A “crooked generation” contrasts the image of a faithful God in Deut 32:4-5.
Biblical scholar Robert C. Tannehill observes that Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:14-36 “not only interprets what has happened; it causes something to happen.”1 This is how proclamation works, in the hands of the Spirit. Peter’s interpretation of the Christ event and arrival of the Holy Spirit brings the assembled crowd to a point of recognition about themselves and about God. The recognition causes something to happen, allowing for new possibilities. This is because the enthronement of God’s Messiah is not the end of the story.
Today would be a good day for a baptism to follow the sermon. Peter connects baptism with the Spirit and with the idea that God’s promise extends to those present, their children, and everyone whom God calls. Baptism is an act of recognition, because baptism declares a new identity. In some ways, baptism seems almost too common, too understated a human ceremony when considered alongside God’s spectacular work in Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation and the pouring out of the Spirit. But, nevertheless, this peculiar act makes a powerful statement about Christians’ identity as forgiven and free people, people given the capacity to live in authentic relationship with God and with one another through the power of the Holy Spirit.
1The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation (2 vols.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 2:26.