Before we launch into Peter’s response to his listeners’ pressing question, “Brethren, what shall we DO?”, we need to clarify a detail that we passed over in the heat of the events…
Return to Peter’s quotation of Joel and look especially at the last words of v17. The translators of the NASB, in their efforts to modernize the language, translated as “mankind” the word “flesh,” just as they did in Joel 2:28. The word in Joel is a Hebrew word, and the word in Acts is a Greek word. Our premise that this portion of Acts has to do only with the nation of Israel and her prophetic promises, and not with the church of today in which there is no difference between Jew and Greek, seems to be clearly countermanded by this single expression “all mankind”. If our premise is correct, shouldn’t Peter have said “all Israel” rather than “all mankind” (“all flesh“)?
As good students of God’s Word, we should get a clear grasp of both the Hebrew and Greek words in use in this verse. The Hebrew word is basar, basically referring to the skin, musculature and bones of animals and humans, but by inference is extended to blood relatives, the entire human race, all living things and even life (animation) itself. Notably, the Hebrews did not use this term for the spiritual side of man, and believed that the root of sin in man resided in his spiritual side, not his “flesh.” The Greek word used in Acts is sarx. The Greeks used this word to describe the visible body of living things, but did not distinguish a separate “soul” as did the Hebrews. The Greeks believed that the root of sin was in the flesh, unlike the Hebrews. (Interestingly, John uses this word in the opening verses of his gospel when he writes, “…and the Word became sarx and dwelt among us.” This is plainly stated to correct the Gnostic heresy that Christ was some sort of apparition during His earthy ministry, not really having a human body.)
If we are to take Luke (and God) literally, the Holy Spirit, according to Joel and accurately quoted by Peter, was poured out on their bodies, not into their “hearts” as He is in the Church today. That is, in fact, exactly what Luke described when the tongues of flame “sat” (Gr. ekathisen, from kathidzow) on each one of them, that is, their visible bodies.
Peter did quote Joel accurately, and God intended him (and empowered him) to do so — what Joel described as “all flesh” was well within the promises made to Israel through many of the prophets. During the Kingdom God would bless all nations and peoples through Israel, and who is to say He would not do so with His Spirit as well as with physical blessings? Joel, speaking as a prophet in the context of Israel’s future says as much. Peter, speaking to Israelites, quotes him in the same context.
We often say that Scripture should be interpreted in the light of Scripture, meaning that any given passage needs to be understood in relation to other passages that deal with the same subject. Let’s apply that principle here. In Acts 1:12-26 (the occasion of selecting Matthias as the twelfth apostle), Peter speaks to Hebrews about the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecies. In the passage we are now studying, Peter addresses men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem about a Hebrew prophecy in v14. He continues to address men of Israel in v22. In v36 he says, “Therefore let all the House of Israel know…” Note that Peter’s quote from Joel comes in the middle of these verses. Did Peter begin by addressing Hebrews about Hebrew issues, then slip into a larger context of the Church for this one verse (a quotation, no less, which he was empowered by God to quote precisely), and then slip back into the Hebrew context?
Let’s consider one more important passage. Please turn in your Bible to Acts 10:44-45, which are at the climax of Peter’s visit to the Gentile Cornelius. (It would be good to read the entire 10th chapter). How did the coming of the Spirit upon the believing members of Cornelius’ household affect Peter and those who came with him? They were amazed. If Peter was already aware of the union of Jew and Gentile in the Church of today (a hallmark of the Age of Grace) in Chapter 2, why was he amazed eight chapters later in Chapter 10? As we shall see when we study Chapter 10, Cornelius and his household were receiving exactly what Joel had prophesied — the blessing of Gentiles through Israel’s promises of an earthly kingdom. In both the second and tenth chapters of Acts, God was still offering the promised Kingdom to Israel, and the truths Paul would write in Ephesians 2:11-22 were still a mystery hidden in God. Cornelius and his household received the Spirit on Kingdom terms, not on these terms explained many years later by Paul in his letter to the Ephesian church:
Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by the so-called Circumcision, which is performed in the flesh by human hands — remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And ‘He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near’; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:11-18)
This concept is found only in the writings of Paul. If God had “generalized” the Gospel to all mankind at Pentecost to Peter and the other eleven apostles, why did Peter continue as if the message was only addressed to Jews, and why were Peter and his travelling companions surprised when the Holy Spirit descended on Cornelius and his household? The simple answer is that Peter did not know it at this juncture in the narrative of Acts, nor did he know it by the 10th chapter either.
This is extremely important to understand and remember as we pick up the story from Luke again in the next post — the continuity of Luke’s record in the context of prophetic promises to Israel of an earthly kingdom remains in force as we proceed!