Peter’s First Sermon and an Interpretive Challenge
The commotion caused by this miracle of languages made some present utter disdainful remarks about the disciples being drunk (Acts 2:13). This gave Peter the pretext he needed to speak to the crowd. After dismissing the accusation Peter announced that what was happening was “what was spoken by the prophet Joel.” (Acts 2:16). He then quoted Joel 2:28-32 (Acts 2:17-21).
But what was this? Joel did not mention the gift of tongues. Moreover, none of the phenomena spoken about by the prophet were manifested in Acts 2! Was this Peter getting ahead of himself again (cf. Matt. 17:4)?
This speech by Peter presents every interpreter with a challenge; even those who push their way past the details and glibly state that in fact Joel 2 was fulfilled in Acts 2. In its context Joel 2:28-32 is an eschatological prediction of the end of the age. It speaks of the coming of the Spirit upon “common people” in all parts of society. It is preceded by a prophetic call to national consecration (Joel 2:15-17), followed by the response of Yahweh in terms of divine pity, decisive action against Israel’s enemies, and (New covenant) blessings upon their land (Joel 2:18-27). Joel 2:26-27 is key here:
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, Who has dealt wondrously with you; and My people shall never be put to shame. Then you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel: I am the LORD your God and there is no other. My people shall never be put to shame.- Joel 2:26-27 (my emphasis).
Notice carefully the language of final reconciliation between God and His people. Yahweh is dwelling in the land as Israel’s God and His people are safe in perpetuity. This is where we must fit Acts 2:28-32. This is what was uppermost in Peter’s mind at Pentecost!
In Acts 2 no one is seeing visions, no one is dreaming, no one is prophesying, and no great “apocalyptic” signs formed in the sky, and the Spirit was poured out on a few men in a room. Further, in Joel 2 no one is speaking in tongues. What was Peter thinking? The single thing in common between the two passages is the coming of the Holy Spirit.
It is the coming of the Spirit that is the clue. And covenantally speaking, from Peter’s vantage-point, the descent of the Spirit is an eschatological portent. But is this a confusion of the first and second advents? We cannot entertain the idea! What then? We are either thrown back to the total fulfillment hypothesis, however bizarre that looks when the two texts are compared, or we are constrained to look for more clues. And clues can be found in the next chapter and Peter’s next recorded sermon.
The Return of Jesus and the Restoration of All Things (Acts 3)
But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled.
Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began. For Moses truly said to the fathers, `The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear in all things, whatever He says to you.’ – Acts 3:18-22.
This is a complicated passage, but I shall try to prise apart its main teachings. Peter first calls the Jewish crowd to repentance because their Messiah has come and has been killed. Peter speaks about the prophecies concerning Christ’s suffering as though they should have been readily apparent, and we may assume there was enough knowledge of the requisite texts for Peter to strike a connection to (whatever our fragmentary knowledge of the time tells us).
However, things take a remarkable turn in verses 19 to 21 where Peter promises that if they will repent and believe his message three world-changing events would occur: 1. Their sins would be “blotted out”; basically removed from them. 2. What he calls “the times of refreshing” and “the times of the restoration of all things” would happen. 3. God would send Jesus their Christ back to earth.
The mention of those three events in chapter 3 of Acts ought to stop us in our tracks. Peter is preaching the coming of the New covenant kingdom at around the A. D. 30! Why then did Christ not come back? Why didn’t the predicted kingdom of peace come about? Many would say that the promised kingdom, though expected by the Jews, arrived in a different way than was expected. They are welcome to think what they want, but that opens up a can of worms relative any meaningful definition of the kingdom.
There is a way forward. There is an answer, and a fairly straightforward one at that. It is this: The promised kingdom of peace and glory and the return of Christ as King would have occurred, if the conditions of restoration had been met.
One can hear the howls of protest fizzing through the air: “Are you saying that since Christ was rejected before and after the crucifixion and resurrection that God had to move to Plan B?” “Are you claiming that the Church was potentially unnecessary?” The answer to both questions is a dogmatic “No!” Any Calvinist systematic theologian could point us in the right direction. God can offer the Gospel sincerely to all even though He has decreed that all will not accept it.
What this shows is that God can know what will happen because He has decreed it will happen (however one understands the decree) even though a contradictory state of affairs (a version of a counterfactual) is set forth. What Peter is proclaiming in Acts 3:19-21 is exactly what he appears to be proclaiming. Jesus would come and the “times of refreshing” would arrive if Israel repented and trusted Jesus as the Christ. They didn’t, and God knew that that wouldn’t. The rejection was foreknown and decreed by God. Unbeknownst to Peter, there was no way Christ would be accepted; therefore, the advent of the Church was determined just as much as the time of Jesus’ birth (Gal. 4:4) or the crucifixion (Psa. 22; Lk. 24:44 cf. Jn. 15:25) were determined.
Returning to Acts 2
If we take this understanding of Peter’s bone fide offer of Christ and the kingdom in Acts 3 and we reread his use of Joel 2 in Acts 2 the proclamation starts to take meaningful shape before our eyes. The phenomena described in Joel 2:28-32 which had to do with the coming of “the great and awesome day of the Lord” does concern the end of days. That is to say that Peter fully expected that the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost would trigger all these events leading up to the return of Christ and the setting up of His great kingdom; the anticipated “Kingdom of God” (cf. Acts 1:3, 6)!
It is crucial to realize that Peter was still thinking within the basic framework of OT eschatology and Jewish expectation that we find in the Gospels and in Acts 1:6. His immediate concern in this setting was to point to the Cross and (especially) the Resurrection as the eschatological breaking- in of God into Israel’s history. The “this” of Acts 2:15 is answered by the references to the resurrection throughout Peter’s speech (Acts 2:24, 30, 31, 32). This is what proved that Jesus was “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).
The reference to the outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 2:17-18, 33) is intended to show the Jews that the New covenant has been inaugurated, and that there is still opportunity for them to repent and believe (in this sense the baptism of verse 38 may be seen as a partial fulfillment of John’s baptism).
Of course, the nation did not believe this message. They rejected it again in Acts 3:12-26, where the expectation of the arrival of the Davidic Kingdom was still patently in the air (esp. Acts 3:19-21). In other words, these were good faith offers of the kingdom which were rejected by all but a relative few.
Viewed this way the one work of Christ in its two phases of Cross and Crown are still held together in Acts 2 and 3. If so, the “signs and wonders” of Acts 2:19 are at the doorstep pending national acceptance of Jesus as Messiah; not only the crucified Messiah, but Risen Messiah – bringing the two phases into close proximity. In God’s Creation Project this was not to be due to human sin A final climactic intervention would be needed. This intervention (as Christ’s rejection) is seen in the Prophets (Isa. 61:1-3; Zech. 14:3-4; Mal. 3:1b-2) and restated in the NT (Matt. 24:29-30; 2 Thess. 1:6-10; Rev. 19:11- 16).
In Acts 3:22-23 Peter then cites Deuteronomy 18 about the Prophet like Moses (Acts 3:15, 18-19). There is a line in there which says, “And it shall be that every soul who will not hear that Prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.” (Acts 3:23/Deut. 18:19). Peter quotes this passage to his Jewish audience in the same setting as his words about the sending (again) of Christ (Acts 3:20-21). This is because the Deuteronomy passage goes together with the return of Christ.
Acts 3 closes with these words:
Yes, and all the prophets, from Samuel and those who follow, as many as have spoken, have also foretoldthese days. You are sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, `And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ – Acts 3:24-25 (my emphasis).
It is quite clear that Peter is thinking covenantally in these sermons in Acts 2 and 3. Here he alludes to the Abrahamic covenant. What is fascinating to me is the part of the Abrahamic covenant he calls their attention to; it is the third plank of the covenant which promises , “And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Acts 3:25).
Why would he say that? I think the answer is that although he was speaking to Jews at a Jewish Festival, Peter knew that what Jesus had said in Acts 1:8:
But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
To those words we need to add the following:
Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things. – Luke 24:46-48.
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – Matthew 28:19.
As these texts show, the disciples were well versed in the attitude of the Good News being for all peoples. Jesus had been rejected by His own (cf. Jn. 1:11), but the message about Him was not limited to Israel; certainly not by the Abrahamic or New covenants. Hence, we must conclude that even though Peter offers Christ’s return from heaven to Israel in Acts 3:19-25 (clearly an offer was made), he is aware of the fact that the Gospel must be spread to the Gentiles too. Just how that would be done and how much time Peter thought would pass between his words and Jesus’ return is impossible to know, but it does appear reasonable to think that it would all occur in their generation.
If we take a look at the last verse in Acts 3 we shall see another covenantal overtone:
To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities. – Act 3:26.
Peter here refers to Jesus as God’s “Servant.” The word “Servant” (Heb. ebed) is only employed in a messianic sense by the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 42; 49; 50; 52 – 53). Peter is deliberately calling his audience’s attention to Isaiah’s Servant; more particularly to the salvific portions of the Servant Songs (e.g., Isa.49:6 and 53:1-12). Isaiah’s Servant is made “as a covenant to the people; to restore the earth” (Isa. 49:8. The context is salvational), so that God’s covenant work is the prime activity of the Servant.
 I must include a note of caution here. Acts 3:17 will speak of the ignorance of both people and, surprisingly, the rulers (which may explain the offer in Acts 3:19-26). This ignorance may well have been mainly caused by the traditions of the rabbis (Mk. 7:6-12). .
 What every scholar is willing to admit is that the first part of the first century A. D. was filled with Messianic hope. The Feast would have only heated up the fervor.
 Hence, the phenomena of Joel 2:28-32a which Peter preached about in Acts 2:16-21 would have come about through the Spirit’s influence had his message been believed. Another way to put this is that both Acts 2:16-21 and 3:19-25 would have taken place if the Jews en masse had believed that Jesus was their Messiah whom they had crucified but God had raised from the dead.