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 and Paul by 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 Psalm 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 – Peter’s Sermon

Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is critically important since it demonstrates how the apostles interpreted the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, including the Ascension. Peter uses the Old Testament in this sermon and cites texts which were fulfilled in the events of Jesus’ life, but also in the events of Pentecost.

Peter Preaching Mildorfer

Peter first explains the significance of the Holy Spirit (2:14-21). Beginning with a prophecy from Joel 2:28-32, Peter states that the presence of the Spirit in the apostles at that moment is what Joel predicted. In short, it is proof that the New Covenant has begun! Several other texts from the Hebrew Bible indicate that the Spirit of God would fall upon his people when the New Age begins (Isa 32:14-15, 44:3; Ezek 11:19, 37:14).

Second, Peter explains that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the purpose of God in his death and was vindicated by God in his resurrection and ascension (2:22-35). The life of Jesus is summarized simply by stating that Jesus was from Nazareth and he was confirmed by God through many miracles. Since this is a summary of the actual sermon, it is entirely possible Peter illustrated this point with his personal experience and witness. Remember that the main theme of chapter one was that the twelve were to be witnesses of these events!

There are several words used to describe the miracles (signs and wonders). Signs is the most significant, since σημειον (semeion) typically refers to a miracle done to prove some sort of point, to make some sort of revelation. Peter states that God did the miracles through Jesus, not that Jesus himself did the miracles. He adds “as you yourselves know,” indicating that at least some of the crowd were witnesses to the miracles of Jesus. It is equally likely that the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans as a rebel was well known by the crowds in Jerusalem.

But Jesus is not dead – God raised him from the dead in fulfillment of prophecy. Peter goes about proving the resurrection quite a bit differently than we do today. He does not mention the empty tomb or challenge the Pharisees to produce a body to prove that Jesus was really dead. 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.

Before looking at Peter’s use of the Psalms, I want to pause and think a bit about what Peter is claiming here. He is clearly saying that the messianic age has in some way already begun. The Spirit has been poured out on those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah. The dead have already been raised. Miracles are in fact happening. Remember that the crowd assembled to hear this sermon are religiously observant Jews who are spending time in the Temple during a religious feast. Peter is claiming that the age anticipated in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve is beginning at that moment!

If this is on the right track, what might a religiously observant and biblical educated Jew in the first century have expected, if the messianic age was beginning? I suspect the crowd had a more than a few people with rather fervent messianic hopes. They might have expected Israel to be re-gathered from the nations to Mount Zion to worship the Lord. It is not a surprise, then, to find that Jews from all over the world who believe in Jesus as Messiah settle in Jerusalem to prepare themselves for his soon return.

Are there other elements of this sermon which contribute to the idea that Pentecost is the beginning of the eschatological age?

Acts 2 – Pentecost in the Book of Acts

The Jewish festival of Pentecost is important for understanding the events of Acts 2. The Feast of Weeks or Shavuot celebrates the first fruits of the harvest. It happens fifty days after Passover (seven weeks) in the late spring / early summer. This festival included an offering of two loaves made with the wheat given in the first fruit offering (Lev 23:15–16; Deut 16:9).

Pentecost, Shavout

For first-century Jews, Shavout was a declaration of “God’s ownership of the land and his grace in bringing forth food” (Sanders, Judaism, 139). The book of Ruth is read during this festival. That Ruth takes place during the wheat harvest may be the reason, but Ruth is not only a gentile convert to Judaism, she is the ancestor of King David. “There may also be a messianic significance in the choice of this work, i.e., that all the world will turn to Judaism eventually” (The Encyclopedia of Judaism; Leiden: Brill, 2000, 1:43). Since Acts begins the story of the Gospel beginning in Jerusalem and eventually going out to the whole world, this background may be significant. A significant problem for this view is our lack of certainty that Ruth was read at Pentecost in the first century. Even if it was, would Luke be aware of the reading, and would he want to tease out any messianic significance for reading Ruth at the Feast of Weeks.

According The Book of Jubilees, Pentecost was the day on which Moses was given the Law (cf. Tobit 2:1, 2 Macc 12:32). Although the Book of Exodus does not make this clear, there is a tradition that the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai 50 days after the first Passover (Exod 19:1). Some scholars (Knox, Snaith) see a connection between this tradition and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Since Moses gave out the Law to Israel on this day, Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the church. Joseph Fitzmyer suggested Luke was aware of the tradition since there are some indirect allusions to the giving of the Law in Acts 2, such as the image of fire descending from heaven (Exod 19:18). For some, the descent of the Spirit as “tongues of fire” alludes to the theophany at Sinai.

However, as Keener points out, there is no scholarly consensus on the meaning of Pentecost in this passage (Acts, 1:784). There are some parallels with a covenant renewal ceremony (Jubilees 6.17) or traditions about Pentecost in the (potentially later) Targumim. Keener concludes Luke use of Pentecost as a festival has no more significance to his narrative than providing large crowds and a short interval after Passover (Acts 1:787).

It is likely the first fruits of the harvest refers to those who receive the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. The new age has begun and the Holy Spirit has come for the first time. But there are two other potential Pentecosts in the book of Acts. In Acts 10 the Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius, a God-Fearing Gentile and he speaks in tongues just as the Jewish believers do in Acts 2. Peter makes this point himself in Acts 10:47: the Gentiles in Cornelius’ home received the Holy Spirit “just as we have.”

There is a third reference to Pentecost in Acts 20:16. Paul wants to return to Jerusalem before Pentecost if possible. This was a dangerous journey, especially since Paul wanted to deliver the collection from the Gentile churches at Pentecost. By delivering a gift to the poor in Jerusalem the Gentile churches demonstrate that they too have received the Holy Spirit. Paul’s return to Jerusalem at Pentecost is calculated to highlight his harvest among the Gentiles. That there are three references to Pentecost are not unexpected since Luke repeats important events three times several times in Acts (Cornelius’ conversion, Paul’s conversion, the rejection of Israel, etc.)

Whatever the intended imagery, the day represents the largest crowd in the Temple area since Passover fifty days before. Peter and the other apostles will be able to preach to large crowds of Jews gathered to worship God in the Temple (Acts 2-3).

What is there in Peter’s sermon that makes some use of this Pentecost imagery?  Why did God choose Pentecost for the outpouring of the Spirit?


Bibliography: W. L. Knox, Acts, (NCB, Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), 80-84; N. Snaith, “Pentecost, the Day of Power,” ExpTim 43 (1931-32): 379-80; Mark J. Olson, “Pentecost,” ABD 5:222.