We will be thinking about what kind of church we have been, and are, and would like to be, as we are studying Acts 2:32-33, 37-47 for Sunday, September 26. [September 26-October 1 is the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom’s Banned Books Week. We’re celebrating by reading the Bible, which showed up on the ALA’s list of the Top Ten Banned Books of the year in 2015.] Here are some notes [and questions] on this text.
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re reading from the Book of Acts, or “the Acts of the Apostles.” We know this is the second part of the larger, single-author work Luke-Acts, because of its elegant Greek style and vocabulary, and because of the way the book introduces itself to “Theophilus” – lover of God – as a continuation of the story already told in the gospel of Luke (Acts 1:1-5). The end of the gospel of Luke and the beginning of Acts make Christ’s Ascension the hinge and the moment of overlap between the two volumes of this work. (See Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:6-11.) Most commentators think the text was written in the late first century CE, but sometimes suggest as late as the mid-second century.
One difference between Luke and Acts is the location of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s activity. In Luke, although people other than Jesus are sometimes filled with the Spirit (like Elizabeth, Zechariah, and John the Baptist), the disciples never are. In Acts, the narrative takes off when the promised Holy Spirit fills the disciples on the day of Pentecost. Our text is the culmination of that dramatic story. We have a few carefully chosen words of Peter’s first sermon, and then the verses that describe the response to this first Christian revival meeting.
The setting is Jerusalem – important for the narrative for many reasons. It’s the place of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection.[*] It’s the spiritual center of Jewish life, the location of the Second Temple, and the destination of the three Biblical “Pilgrimage Festivals” of Sukkoth, Passover, and Pentecost. It’s where the disciples have been told to stay until they “are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). All of these Jerusalem identities are connected; Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection is interwoven with Passover, both temporally and symbolically, in the Christian story. It shouldn’t surprise us that the next festival in the calendar, Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot, also gets bound up in Christian time-telling and symbol. [See Leviticus 23:9-23:22]
The time is the day of Pentecost – early-ish in the morning. Peter makes an explicit reference to the time of day in verse 15, one of the best lines in all of Scripture. It’s not only early in the morning, it’s early in the first century CE. In our own days, when Judaism is rabbinical, if we are Jewish and observant, we will stay up all night and study Torah on the first night of Shavuot, and eat blintzes. The disciples could have been doing that, too, but since rabbinical Judaism doesn’t come into being for another 150 years or so, more likely not.
The “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” who respond to the Pentecostal commotion are residents of the city, not pilgrims; verse 5 tells us this explicitly. These devout Jews seem to be the audience for Peter’s sermon, and the speakers in verse 37.
Peter, the preacher of the sermon in verses 5-36, is already well-known to us from the gospel of Luke (and the other gospels, too). He’s the guy who jumps right in, first to raise his hand when the teacher asks a question in class, sure of himself till he isn’t, etc. Here, he’s acting true to form, assuming the spokesperson leadership role for which he will ultimately become legendary.
Baptism, which comes up in the text, is not a new practice. It has roots in Jewish purification ritual, and is an intelligible practice when John the Baptist conducts it at the beginning of the gospels. The text, however, doesn’t give us any clues about where the mass baptism of verse 41 would have taken place.
Almost our entire text is in the lectionary, as the series of gospel texts for the Second through Fourth Sundays of Easter, Year A. All but verse 33. That’s because verses 33-36 – in which Peter quotes Psalm 110:1, as a reference to Jesus as the Messiah – are omitted from the lectionary. That makes Peter’s use of Psalm 110 in this sermon one of those things you’d not know about the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. Psalm 110 never appears in the lectionary either. That could make the most quoted Psalm in the New Testament one of those things you’d not know about the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees take note. So pay close attention when Jesus quotes the same verse, in the same way, in Matthew 22:34-46. That will happen later in Year A (Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost), and it will be your only lectionary-provided opportunity to hear one of the multiple NT quotations of this Psalm text.
CLOSER READING: In verse 32, when Peter says God “raised up” Jesus, it probably refers to Jesus’s resurrection. But it could be an economical reference to Jesus’s ascension, as well. That seems to be suggested by Peter’s reference to Jesus being “exalted at God’s right hand” in the next verse, and his use of Psalm 110:1 a couple of verses later.
“All of us” most likely refers to “the eleven,” since Peter is standing with them.
Verse 33 presents us with the Trinity “in kit form,” as my New Testament teacher used to say. Jesus, the Christ, receives the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father – each of the persons of the Trinity there. Jesus earlier passed that promise of the Spirit on to the apostles – that’s why they’re waiting in Jerusalem – and now the promise is being fulfilled in a dramatically public way.
Verse 37 “they” are presumably the “devout Jews from every nation under heaven.” While they seem to be responding to Peter’s entire sermon, they are perhaps more particularly “pierced to the heart” by his statement in verse 36. [It’s a “J’accuse” moment, and a sadly sanctified contribution to the woefully murderous history of Christian-Jewish relations. In which most of the murder has come from the Christian side. It would be wise for us post-Holocaust Christians to read Peter as intending the “you-all” in “this Jesus whom you-all crucified” as “you-all sinful human beings.” Then we would be more inclined to include ourselves in that “you-all,” too.]
Their question, “What should we do, men, brothers?” is a little curious. Why do they address the apostles in this way? We might want to think about this.
In verse 38, Peter’s counsel of repentance and baptism presents us with a non-Trinitarian formula for baptism. [What verse 33 giveth, verse 38 taketh away – and in its place, a nice pretext for some later intra-mural theological arguments.]
Verse 39 offers another couple of pretexts for intra-mural theological argument. The promise – whether of forgiveness, or of the Holy Spirit, or both, and whether or not all embodied in baptism, or in repentance + baptism – is for the audience, and “for your children,” along with others – “far away,” but they have to be called. By “the Lord our God,” by which Peter might mean here the Holy One of Israel, or Our Lord Jesus Christ, or both (see verse 33; it would be a lot less ambiguous if Peter weren’t already speaking Greek).
In verse 40, Peter’s “exhorting” is itself an activity that we would associate with a paraclete – so we might be inclined to take extra seriously the way the Holy Spirit is at work in Peter’s sermon. In urging the listeners to “be saved” from their generation, the word translated “corrupt” is a Greek word that also means “crooked” or “twisted.” It gives us our word scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine. We use the words “crooked” and “bent” this way, too, to describe officials who are “on the take” or people who do business illegally, or whose business is altogether illegal. “Crooks.”
A large number of listeners receive the message, but verse 41 implies fewer than all of them. [Maybe less the ones who thought the apostles were drunk, back in verse 13.]
Verses 41 and 42 are a concise description of ideal Christian living. Especially if we assume, which we probably can, that “the apostles’ teaching” included caring for widows and orphans in their distress.
Verses 43-47 probably encourage this assumption. They seem to expand on that ideal description, and they directly address the way the community responds to those who “had need.” The words “everyone” in verse 43 and “all the people” in verse 47 form an enveloping wrapper around this expanded description of the idyllic, golden-age-inaugurating way of life of this new-born Christian community.
Or more precisely, this new-born Jesus-oriented community. “All who believed” explicitly spend time “in the temple,” so they do not seem to have stopped being “devout Jews.” When they praise God, they are presumably praising the God of Israel and Moses and David, author of Psalm 110, and the prophets, and Jesus.
“Everyone” and “all the people” seem to be the larger group from which “all who believed” has been drawn, and from whom “those who were being saved” continue to be drawn. They are in awe of the empowered activity of the apostolic leaders. They view the new group with favor. The believers are ecstatically happy. God’s anointed. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me …”
Wouldn’t it be nice to be this church?
[*] Jesus’s ascension, on the other hand, reportedly takes place near Bethany on the Mount of Olives. Jesus’s followers have to return to Jerusalem from there to do their waiting.
Image: “Saints Peter and Paul,” Stained glass at St. Blaise Church, Dubrovnki, photographed by Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons