The Biblical Context of Peter’s Pentecost Sermon (Acts 2)

Borrowing heavily from S. Joel Garver, Pentecost, Baptism, and the Promise to Children

All Scriptures from NASB

Peter’s declaration at the end of his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:38-39 is one of the most debated scriptures in the ongoing discussion of infant baptism.  Few dispute that the children of believers belonged to God in the covenant along with their parents prior to the coming of Christ.  This is evidenced by circumcision at 8 days old.  But what about the coming of Christ and the New Covenant?  Are children now excluded from God’s people until they make a conscious choice to follow Him, and can accurately describe their faith in Christ?  Or is there still an objective, visible people of God wherein children are claimed as belonging to Christ (with their Christian parents), and then nurtured as those who must respond to God in obedience, repentance and faith especially because they belong to Him?  Baptism being the initiation ceremony into the Christian church, the issue of infant baptism revolves around these questions.

Near the end of Acts 2, after a lengthy sermon, Peter is asked by conscience stricken Israelites what they must do (verse 37).  He responds:

Acts 2:38-39 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will 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 will call to Himself.”

This passage could obviously be taken one of two ways, which is why it is constantly debated.  One way would be to take the promise to be the general promise of the Gospel.  That promise would be “repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  Of course, faith underlies both the action of repentance (turning from sin) and being baptized (joining the people of God).  Therefore, the Gospel promise is indeed for our children, but our standard of measure for true repentance and faith becomes the determining factor in who should be baptized.  There it is, believer’s baptism.

In the other view, however, the promise is not necessarily the general promise of salvation through faith, but is actually the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  This shifts things, for if the promise of the Holy Spirit is actually for our children (without age distinction) then it becomes less clear why they should be excluded from baptism.  I hope to demonstrate that this is the better interpretation based on the Biblical context of the events at Pentecost.  I will first make a quick observation within Acts 2, then draw on three Old Testament passages with strong ties to Peter’s statement and the surrounding events.

First, I think that within Acts 2 itself it is easy to demonstrate that the promise being referred to is actually the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Refer to verse 33:

Acts 2:33 Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear.

Christ ascended into heaven, was seated at the right hand of God, and received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit.  After receiving it, he poured it forth on His people, beginning on the day of Pentecost.  The gift or promise of the Spirit is something Israel had been waiting for for a long time (check out Ezekiel 36:24-27, which ties together the themes of clean water and the gift of the Spirit).  Peter was announcing to Israel and the whole world (note verse 5), that the promise had finally come.

Now to the Old Testament, where we’ll move in chronological order.  First, it is difficult to view the structure of Peter’s statement without observing the similarity to the original covenant made with Abraham.  The promise that Peter refers to is to three groups: you (the Jewish adult male hearers – Acts 2:14, 22), your children, and to all who are far off (the gentile nations).  God’s promises to Abraham run parallel.  The fundamental covenant is made with Abraham and his children (Genesis 17:7).  The ultimate goal, however, is not exculsive to one family line.  Rather, through Abraham and his children, ALL the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:3).  God working through the covenant with Abraham and his descendants, will bless every nation on earth.  Genesis 18 says:

Genesis 18:17-20 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”

Abraham (and his descendants) faithfully commanding his children to follow the way of the Lord is designed by God to bring about the ultimate blessing of the covenant. A blessing that would encompass Abraham (the believer), his children, and all the nations who were currently “far off” from God’s blessing, both at the time of Abraham, and even at the time of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2.  Throughout the history of the covenant, children belonged to God with their parents.  It is impossible to imagine any Israelite hearing Peter’s Pentecost declaration and failing to see the connection with the Abrahamic covenant.  Peter would have had to explain very clearly that their children were no longer included with God’s people.

Second, the timing of the Spirit’s coming is very important.  It happened on the day of Pentecost, which makes the Mosaic covenant Feast of Pentecost (the Feast of Weeks) very significant to our understanding of the events.  This connection is clear.  The Feast of Weeks was the annual feast in Israel that celebrated the beginning of the harvest season, or the firstfruits of the harvest.  Clearly, this was ultimately symbolic of the Spirit’s work of harvesting souls into the kingdom of God, which began on the day of Pentecost.  However, there is another point of interest.  The feast of Pentecost explains WHY all these men from around the world were living in Jerusalem at this time.  They had gathered for the feast, as per God’s requirement in Exodus.

Exodus 23:14-17 “Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me. You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field; also the Feast of the Ingathering at the end of the year when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord God.

Therefore, all faithful male Israelites (and proselytes) would have gathered in Jerusalem at this time to celebrate the feast of the first fruits.  “All your males” would appear to indicate the infant and child males, in addition to the fathers.  However, we don’t even have to surmise this, since Deuteronomy 16 is even more explicit.

Deuteronomy 16:10-11 Then you shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with a tribute of a freewill offering of your hand, which you shall give just as the Lord your God blesses you; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter and your male and female servants and the Levite who is in your town, and the stranger and the orphan and the widow who are in your midst, in the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name.

The Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) then, is a giant gathering of faithful Israelites (therefore devout men in Acts 2:5) where they celebrate before the special presence of the Lord their God, along with their children, servants, Levites, strangers (i.e. gentiles living within Israel), orphans, and widows.  This giant gathering of God’s people is who Peter adresses on the day of Pentecost with his statement: “the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”  God’s rich blessings on all these groups are forshadowed in the original Feast of Pentecost.

Finally, we have the explicit connection between Acts 2 and Joel 2:28-29.  I say explicit because Peter quotes this passage at the beginning of his sermon, and confirms that the outpouring of the Spirit that has already begun is the direct fulfilment.

Acts 2:14-21 But Peter, taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: “Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel:

‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, And your young men shall see visions, And your old men shall dream dreams; Even on My bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit And they shall prophesy.

Israel had been waiting with earnest expectation for the outpouring of the Spirit for hundreds of years.  And based on the prophecy of Joel, who was expected to receive the Spirit?  “All mandkind”, or more literally, “all flesh”.  This clearly does not mean every single person, for those who hate God and reject his Messiah do not receive it.  Rather, it means all types and conditions of mankind will receive the Spirit.  The outpouring to the gentiles is encompassed in this statement.  Further,the recipients of the Spirit are broken down into smaller groups of children (sons and daughters shall prophesy), young adults (young men shall see visions), older adults (old men shall dream dreams), and even the male and female servants.  The inclusion of the servants parallels God’s orgininal command to Abraham that the male servants of his household should be circumcised along with his male children.  And the groups of people included in Joel’s prophecy (and later Peter’s declaration) is in clear continuity with those included in the feast of Pentecost from Deuteronomy: you, your children, your servants, and even the gentiles living within Israel, along with Levites, orphans, and widows – who were all specifically included in the feast because they had no land or way to provide for themselves.

So in conclusion, a people originally formed by the Abrahamic covenant, which included them and their children, had gathered in Jerusalem for a celebratory feast before God that included them and their children.  While there, they hear a sermon announcing that the Spirit of God has finally been poured out – a promise that according to Joel 2 included them and their children.  Then Peter tells them to “Repent (of the sin of murdering their Messiah), and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will 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 will call to Himself.”  How would the gathered Israelites have interpreted this statement?  How then should we interpret it?

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One thought on “The Biblical Context of Peter’s Pentecost Sermon (Acts 2)

  1. Pingback: Infant Baptism Part 7 – The Formation of the Church | Draw Up for Battle

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