Acts 2 – Peter and the Hebrew Bible

Peter’s sermon is a summary of the sorts of things he would have preached in any similar context.  He is speaking to rather well educated Jews in the Temple, people who knew their Hebrew Bible very well.  Rather than pursue modern logical arguments, he turns to the Psalms and shows that David does not exhaust the meaning of the text. Since the messiah is to be a new David, the psalms Peter cites are turning into prophecies of Jesus’ resurrection.

Peter_Paul_El_GrecoIn order to show that the Messiah would rise from the dead, Peter quotes Psalm 16:8-11. In this text, David states his faith that God will not abandon him in the grace not “allow him to see decay.” Peter points out that David died and was not resurrected, his tomb was still venerated in Jerusalem to that day. Perhaps people in the audience had already visited the tomb of David during their visit to the City! (Modern tours of Israel often visit the Upper Room and the Tomb of David at the same time since they are relatively close together.)

Psalm 16 is remarkable in that both Peter and Paul cite it as a prophecy of the resurrection of Jesus (cf., Acts 13:32-37). Yet when one reads Psalm 16, there is little there that hints at a messianic interpretation. To tease out a messianic implication from the psalm Peter blends it with Ps 132:11 and applies it to Jesus.

To me, this is an exegetical maneuver which I would not a student to make, and probably if I heard a pastor use Scripture in this way I would probably have a few things to say about his exegetical method.  But int he context of Jewish interpretation of Scripture, this makes sense.  Combining texts in this way creates new possibilities which are then applied to new situations.  I think this might be a case where we should be careful how we try and apply Scripture, Peter is not giving a lesson on how to read the Hebrew Bible, only showing that these texts allude in some way to the resurrection.

To further his case, Peter cites Psalm 110, another well known messianic prophecy. There David is told that he would be exalted to the very throne of God and that God would make all his enemies his footstool. This too cannot have been exhaustively fulfilled in the life David. Although David was given great victories, and he was the greatest king in Israel’s history, he was not raised to the level of the throne of God!

Peter therefore tells the crowd that Jesus non only rose from the dead but was taken up to heaven like Elijah or Moses (or Enoch, for that matter). In those three cases, the person was a highly respected prophet who did not experience death. Like the great men of old, God confirmed Jesus’ message by doing miracles through him, but he allowed him to die in order to initiate the new covenant.

Since Jesus fulfills the psalm which David could not, he is confirmed as the Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). This is the most shocking point in the whole sermon – everything which the Hebrew Bible looked forward to had happened with Jesus, he was in fact the Lord and Messiah.

Acts 2:42-47 – The Early Community of Believers

Clint Arnold points out in his Acts commentary that they community in Acts Two was characterized by four types of activities. Acts 2:42 says that the believers were devoted to these four activities.  The verb here (προσκαρτερέω) has the idea of being busy with something, or even “to persist” (BDAG).  The word appears twice in this paragraph, in verse 46 the community is daily worshiping in the temple and sharing meals together.

First, they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles (διδαχή). This instruction is for new converts who may not have heard Jesus teach.  The apostles are witnesses passing along the things which they have seen and heard.  It is entirely possible that the apostles had common set of instruction which they regularly passed along to new converts.  If this is the case, then there was a basic body of tradition within months of the death of Jesus which could be called the “teaching of the apostles.”

Second, they devoted themselves to fellowship (κοινωνία). Since this word has the connotation of sharing common, this is likely an allusion to the communal life described in the next verses (Fitzmyer, Acts, 269).  At the very least this includes alms and care for the poor.  I would suggest that many of those who needed assistance were Diaspora pilgrims who accepted the message of Jesus and remained in Jerusalem rather than to return home after Pentecost.

Third, they devoted themselves to “breaking of bread.” While this phrase can be used of sharing a meal together, it is likely that Luke is describing the community as celebrating some form of communion.  In Luke 21:19 the same words are used as Jesus takes bread and breaks it.  In Luke 24:35 it is used for the resurrected Jesus breaking bread as two disciples realized who he was.  I think that Jesus’ practice of common meals was the foundation for this practice — they all ate and drank together as one group.

Fourth, they devoted themselves to prayers. Since the Greek is plural this is plausibly a reference to daily prayers in the Temple.  It would not be unusual for Jewish men to go to the Temple several times a day to pray, so the community continues to worship at the Temple regularly.  In fact, Acts 2:46 indicates that the disciples met in both private homes and in the Temple.  This likely put them into contact with other observant Jews who would then be introduced to Jesus as Messiah.

Since a major interest in this series of studies is how to “apply” the book of Acts, it is critical to ask if  Luke is describing an ideal Christian community, or the specific community in Jerusalem.  While it is easy to see these four elements as generic components of Christian community everywhere, there are other elements in this paragraph which do not seem to be found elsewhere.  I will come back to this later, but notice for now that the community sold property, pooled resources, and distributed these funds to the poor.  Giving to the poor is a standard description of Christian community, but “living in common” only appears here in Acts 2.  There is nothing which makes me think the Antioch church was pooling resources, nor does Paul give any such instruction to his churches.

The fact that these earliest believers are devoted to these activities daily is also unique in the apostolic period.  There is no other group of believers who appear to have left their jobs to devote themselves to spiritual activity.  In 1-2 Thessalonians Paul seems to instruct the members of the church to not retire from daily life and be constantly devoted to ministry.  2 Thess 3:11-12 specifically tells people to go out and get jobs so that they are not a burden.

What is the reason Christians are quick to apply Acts 2:42 but not Acts 2:43 (miracles) or 2:44-45 (communal living)?  What is the difference between what is happening in Acts 2 and 2 Thessalonians 3?