PETER'S PENTECOST SERMON
by Doug Ward
The remarkable miracles and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth prompted widespread speculation about his true identity. (see e.g. Matt. 16:13-14). At one point he asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" (v. 15, NIV).
Simon Peter, a leader among the disciples, answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (v. 16). Affirming Peter's answer, Jesus stated that this knowledge had been divinely revealed to Peter (v. 17).
In the ensuing weeks and months, Peter and his fellow
disciples would learn much more about their Teacher. Some of what Jesus taught
them was so surprising that they found it impossible to accept at first-in
particular, the idea that the Messiah would be put to death in
Then it was time for the students to become teachers themselves. While they awaited the Messiah's return, their mission was to spread the good news they had learned "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:7-11).
Their announcement of the gospel began on the festival of Shavuot
(also known as the day of Pentecost), just days after Jesus left them and
"ascended to the right hand" of his Father. On the morning of the
festival, when they gathered with thousands of other Jews near the
"They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them" (Acts 2:3-4).
The disciples of Jesus soon drew a crowd. How was this small group of Galileans praising God in so many languages at once? (Acts 2:5-12)
Taking advantage of the crowd's curiosity, Peter stood and delivered the first recorded Christian sermon, a summary of which appears in Acts 2:14-40. In his sermon, Peter explained the meaning of the miracle that was occurring among them that morning and urged his listeners to take appropriate action in response to it.
Let's take a closer look at Peter's sermon, which centered around the person and work of Jesus Christ. In doing so, we will see just how much Peter and the other disciples had learned about the answer to their Master's earlier question: "Who do you say that I am?"
Fulfilling Joel's Prophecy
The text for Peter's sermon came from the words of Joel, a prophet of the ninth century B.C.:
"In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Acts -21, quoting Joel -32).
After citing Joel's words, Peter set out to describe how those words were being fulfilled through Jesus. He began by reminding his audience of the miracles for which Jesus had become renowned. These, he claimed, were some of the "signs on the earth below" foretold by Joel (Acts ).
But hadn't this miracle worker recently suffered a humiliating death by crucifixion? Peter went on to assert that Jesus' arrest and execution had been carried out according to God's "set purpose and foreknowledge" (v. 23), and that God had in fact raised Jesus back to life. He supported his claim by quoting Psalm 16:8-11 as evidence that the resurrection of the Messiah had been revealed to King David nearly a thousand years before (Acts 2:24-31). In addition, he offered the eyewitness testimony of himself and his companions (v. 32).
Peter then proceeded from resurrection to ascension, proclaiming that Jesus had been "exalted to the right hand of God" (v. 33). Again, he presented scriptural backing for his statement, citing Psalm 110:1 (see v. 35). Here he made use of gezerah shevah, a Jewish exegetical technique that links passages containing words in common. In this case, both Ps. 16:8-11 and Ps. 110:1 speak of God's "right hand," suggesting a connection between the Messiah's resurrection and an ascension to the divine throne.
Such events would surely qualify as the kind of "wonders in the heaven above" foreseen by Joel (v. 19). And this was not the only way that Jesus was involved in the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy. Peter next claimed that Jesus, in his place at the divine throne, "has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear" (v. 33). In other words, it was through Jesus that God was carrying out the words of Joel 2:28 that day.
This time Peter offered no explicit scriptural support for his assertion. In order to understand the logic behind Acts 2:33, we will need to review some of the ancient Jewish traditions associated with the Day of Pentecost.
The Ascensions of Moses and Jesus
By the time of Jesus the festival of Shavuot, which fell seven weeks after Passover, had come to be associated with a key event from the Exodus that had also occurred about seven weeks after Passover: God's revelation of the Torah (see , ). So when Peter and his fellow Jews assembled for worship on Pentecost, they naturally would have had in mind what their ancestors had experienced at
Over the centuries a number of traditions had developed
concerning the details of God's appearance at
Those in Peter's audience who were familiar with these
traditions would have noticed the similarity between what was said to have
occurred at Sinai and what they had witnessed in
Other Pentecost traditions involved the role of Moses in
receiving the Torah and delivering it to the children of
"You ascended to the firmament, Prophet Moses; you led captive captivity; you learned the words of Torah; you gave them as gifts to the sons of men."
When Peter announced to the worshippers assembled in
"Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."
Peter had now reached the "punch line" of his sermon. In his lengthy citation from Joel 2, he had made sure to include the first part verse 32: "And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved." He had then argued that the resurrected Jesus was the Lord upon whom they should call for salvation (v. 36). He concluded his message by urging his listeners to call upon the name of the Lord Jesus through repentance and baptism in that name (v. 38).
Further New Testament Testimony
When Peter stated in Acts 2:33 that it was the risen Jesus who had empowered them with the Holy Spirit, he was speaking on good authority. Jesus himself, on the night before his death, had said that he would send the Spirit to them (John ; 16:7). On an earlier occasion Jesus had promised to give them needed wisdom, another way of saying that he would send the Spirit (Luke ).
The fact that Jesus' promises were indeed fulfilled was
borne out in the experience of the early Christians. As the apostles traveled
Such experiences are reflected in the language of the Pauline epistles. In the salutations of his epistles, Paul writes that both God the Father and Jesus are sources of peace (Rom. 1:7; I Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; etc.), one of the "fruits of the Spirit" (Gal. 5:22). For Paul, the Holy Spirit is both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9; Gal. 4:6; Phil. ). In Ephesians 4, Paul expands on the analogy that is implicit in Acts . As the "prophet like unto Moses," Jesus has ascended on high and returned through the Spirit to equip the church for growth (Eph. 4:7-16).
Later in the first century A.D., the Gospel of John also portrayed Jesus as Giver of the Spirit. This is one of the predominant images of the fourth gospel (John ; ,14; 6:63; -39; ).
Jesus as "Lord of the Spirit"
Peter made some remarkable assertions about Jesus in his Pentecost sermon. In particular, he applied Joel 2:32---a text about YHWH, the God of Israel---to Jesus.2 In the Hebrew Scriptures, to "call upon the name of the Lord" is to offer prayer and worship to God (Gen. 13:4; Ps. 105:1; Jer. ), so Peter's christological reading of Joel implied that Jesus was worthy of divine worship.
Moreover, Peter pictured Jesus as being in some sense "in charge of" the distribution of the Holy Spirit. New Testament scholar Max Turner (, ) has observed that this portrayal of Jesus goes well beyond earlier Jewish understandings of the Messiah. It was anticipated that the Messiah would be empowered by the Spirit (Isa. 11:2; 61:1), but the Messiah had not previously been seen as directing the Spirit's activity.
The New Testament writers describe Jesus' relationship to the Holy Spirit in terms analogous to those previously used to picture God's relationship to the Spirit. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit is presented as an extension of God's personality and activity (see , chapter 5). The Spirit is God's "hand" (Ezek. ; 8:1-3; 37:1) and his "breath" (Job 33:4; 34:14), his power and presence (Ps. 139:7). When the Spirit departed from Saul (I Sam. ), that meant that God had departed from him (I Sam. ). Similarly, in the New Testament, Jesus is described as being in and with those who are led by the Spirit (Matt. ; John ). Turner comments, "As the Spirit had mediated God's activity, and thus his presence, amongst his people, so, according to the perspective of Acts , the Spirit has now become the means of Jesus' presence and activity too" (, p. 183).
Such a relationship to the Spirit is inconceivable for someone who is only a human agent of God and nothing more. People received the Holy Spirit through the laying on of the apostles' hands (Acts -20), but the apostles did not then personally live in those people and accompany them everywhere, as Jesus was said to do. How could someone who is merely human be said to exercise control over God's own sovereign power and “inner life”? As the prophet Isaiah asked, "Who has directed the spirit of the LORD, or as his counselor has instructed him?" (Isa. 40:13)
In verses like Acts , then, the New Testament makes an implicit claim for the deity of Jesus by identifying him as the "Lord of the Spirit." Turner (, pp. 423-424) suggests that such portrayals of Jesus might also have paved the way for the Trinitarian model, according to which the Holy Spirit is a distinct “hypostasis,” subordinate in relationship (but not in essence) to both the Father and the Son. A Trinitarian model helps resolve the questions raised by the "lordship over the Father" that might otherwise be implied by Jesus' lordship over the Spirit.
Peter's Pentecost message, the first recorded Christian sermon, is remarkable in many ways. In addition to being an announcement of the coming of the "last days" and a powerful proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus and the need for all people to repent, it is also a statement of Jesus' role as Lord of the Spirit---and thus an assertion of the Messiah's deity.
1. Richard Bauckham, "Paul’s Christology of Divine Identity," Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers, 2003.
2. David B. Capes, Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul's Christology, J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen, 1992.
3. James D.G. Dunn, Christology
in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the
4. W. Hall Harris
III, The Descent of Christ: Ephesians 4:7-11
and Traditional Hebrew Imagery, E.J. Brill,
5. Max Turner, "The Spirit of Christ and Christology," pp. 168-190 in Christ the Lord: Studies in Christology Presented to Donald Guthrie, Harold H. Rowdon, editor, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1982.
6. Max Turner, "The Spirit of Christ and `Divine' Christology," pp. 413-436 in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ, Joel B. Green and Max Turner, editors, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1994.
1The Targumim are Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures. They were committed to writing in the early centuries A.D. but often reflect earlier traditions.
2The New Testament writers often cited passages about Yahweh in reference to Jesus (, ).
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