Repent — but of what?

Finally we come to Peter’s answer to the question, “Brethren, what should we DO?”  But before we dive in, dear reader, a reminder — if we are to observe the Word for what it says, we must cast of preconceived notions about what we might have been taught it means.  We are not at the point of interpreting the passage until we have discovered what it says plainly for ourselves.

If we are going to apply anything we have learned before, let it be what we have learned from Luke in the preceeding chapters and verses.  Luke’s continuity is unbroken here.  What he is describing is God dealing with Israel according to His prophetic promises — the most prominent of which is the promise of an earthly kingdom.  That has been the context throughout our studies to this point, and there is no mystical transition to a “kingdom in the hearts of men”.  When God is ready to describe that transition in His Word, He will make it clear.  And the time in Luke’s narrative has not yet come.

Peter’s audience is still Men of Israel (vv5, 14, 22, 36).  What’s more, the specific accusation that caused such an anguished reaction in his listeners was that they were responsible for the crucifixion of the Messiah.  Note that Peter does not accuse them of any of the raft of sins described by Paul in the first chapter of his letter to the believers in Rome!  Peter doesn’t accuse them of violating any of the Ten Commandments specifically or of violating any of the ceremonial Laws of Moses.  He doesn’t accuse them of some general moral failure.  His accusation was very pointed and specific, and it evoked a very pointed and specific reaction:

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?”  And Peter said to them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.”  And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!”  (Acts 2:37-40)

Peter states the action they must take – repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.  The Greek word used for repent is metanoeo, a combination of the positional prefix meta, meaning opposite (in the sense of “across from”), and nous, the mind.  It literally means opposite-think.  Implied in this word is a process of both realization and action.  It is to realize that God has been right all along and we have been deceived, and then to do an about-face in our thinking, agreeing with God that He is right.

What did this mean to Peter’s listeners in the context of his accusation?  What God required of them was to realize that they had been completely wrong about the things that led to Jesus crucifixion and completely change their minds to what God had been trying to tell them all along — that He had sent His Son in the person of Jesus, and that He was the long-awaited Messiah.  In a nutshell, God was requiring them to change their minds on the issue of whether or not Jesus was the Christ.

Repentance and baptism in Jesus’ name were for forgiveness.  Israel was familiar with baptism, for much of the Law of Moses included ceremonial washings.  By Jesus’ day, Elijah had returned just before Jesus in the person of John the Baptist, whose role was to “make ready the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4, quoted from Isaiah 40:3).  Interestingly, Luke describes John’s ministry in Luke 3:3 as “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…” – nearly the exact wording Peter used in Acts 2:38.  John’s baptism was accomplished with water, as he himself describes in Luke 3:16.  Most Bible scholars agree that the concepts of repentance, baptism and forgiveness are tightly intertwined symbolically and practically.  The sins that John the Baptist addressed were a wide range of moral violations ranging from selfishness to extortion to Herod’s wicked ways.  Absent from his list was the specific act of crucifying their Messiah, for John had no foreknowledge of it and Israel was not guilty of it yet.  In any case, it’s reasonable here to consider that Peter had water baptism in the manner used by John the Baptist in mind.

English punctuation notwithstanding, we should interpret Peter’s statement in the light of Luke’s description of John’s preaching.  Taken alone, Acts 2:38 could be taken as two separate actions, (1) repentance, and (2) baptism for the forgiveness of sin.  This would appear to make forgiveness of sin dependent on only the baptism.  The question hinges on what the word “for” points to.  Does it point to baptism alone, to repentance alone, or to repentance and baptism together?  IMHO, on the basis of Luke’s description of John the Baptist’s preaching, it points to both repentance and baptism.

There are three salient points to recognize at this point in the narrative.  (1) Forgiveness required both repentance and baptism.  (2) According to Peter the order is important — repentance first, then baptism.  My Baptist friends would express it as an inward change of heart symbolized by a following outward action.  Only one can produce the other.  And (3), Peter is expressing the same thing to Israel that John the Baptist did, both of them Israelites speaking to Israelites according to the prophetic promises God made to Israel.  Allusions in John’s ministry (Luke 3) and here in Acts 2 to blessings and salvation for all of mankind are still in the context of coming through Israel to the world, rather than in spite of Israel’s disbelief.  The great mystery of the Church is still hidden in God at this point in the narrative.

If Peter’s listeners did what he said was required of them by God, what would be the result?

…and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (v38)

Notice, dear reader, that receiving the Holy Spirit will come after their baptism according to Peter at this time.  Peter and his companions will be surprised in Chapter 10 when gentile believers receive the Holy Spirit before they are baptized!  God will be changing the way that this all happens in the coming chapters, and it will be profitable for us to pay attention to the order of events.  By the time we reach Paul’s letters, the requirement of water baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit as a separate delayed event will have been completely eliminated.  We also need to remember that Peter’s experience with the Holy Spirit’s coming was accurately described by Jesus and Luke as a cloaking and sitting upon believers, not an indwelling.  Peter’s expectation is that the Holy Spirit will “come upon” these new believers in the same manner He came upon the original 120 at Pentecost.

Peter goes on to say,

For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.

The first word, for, is important here — it’s used in the sense of because and it conveys the notion that Peter is about to give a supporting reason to what he has just told them to do.  In essence, Peter says “Do this, because…”  Because what?  Because of the promise.  What promise? The promise he began his speech with — the one from Joel.  Go back and read it again in vv17-21.  Peter says it “is for you and your children,” just as Joel said that their “sons and your daughters shall prophesy…”  Who did Peter mean when he said “you and your childred?”  If we stay in context, he meant Israelites.  The blessing would come to them first.

Joel and Peter go on to enlarge the blessing to “all who are far off” and whoever calls upon the name of the Lord.  Please notice that Joel was speaking about the days leading into the Tribulation and the Kingdom, and Jesus had trained Peter and the other apostles for the same period of time.  It was their expectation and anticipation.  Knowing nothing of a time when Israel would be temporarily set aside for their unbelief, when God would go around obstinate Israel to reach the Gentiles, Peter’s expectation for those who were “far off” was that they would receive what was promised to Israel through Israel — the hope of an earthly kingdom.

The last observation by Luke in this passage is an interesting statement by Peter, speaking under the power of the Holy Spirit.  He urges them to be rescued (“saved”) from “this perverse generation.”  Remember Jesus’ words as He prepared His disciples for the coming Tribulation: “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place.” (Luke 21:32)  This is the same Greek word in both places, and we have discussed it in a previous post.  Suffice it to say that in both places it represents Israel’s persistent national mindset that Jesus was not the Christ.  It was the prevailing orthodox theology in Israel in that day.  It may not have been the view of the majority, but it was the view of those who held theological power (and therefore political power) in Israel.  Peter is repeating Jesus’ very words to them, from God’s inerrant point of view, and he is urging them to reject the pressure of the religious establishment and have a reversal of mind and heart about Jesus — which is exactly where he began his reply.  Repent!

God was calling Israel to repent, but of what?  John the Baptist had called them to repent of their generally evil ways, to be morally and ceremonially clean and presentable in preparation for the coming King.  But Peter, by God’s direction, pinned only one sin on them.  Do you know what it was now? 

The words that God gave Peter pierced their hearts.  So did they take his advice?

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