POST OVERVIEW. The first post of a two-post series which examines Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. This first post will provide some background for the apostle’s message, revealing the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. The second post will be a verse by verse exegesis of the sermon, showing how Peter brilliantly makes his meaning clear.
The importance of the events of Pentecost in Acts 2 can scarcely be overstated. The Holy Spirit comes like a mighty rushing wind, manifesting Himself as tongues of fire; Galileans spontaneously speak in many of the languages of the Mediterranean world; Peter preaches the first sermon of the church age; three thousand people hear the message, repent, and are baptized; and the New Testament church is born. In my most recent study of Acts, I have been struck by the brilliance of Peter’s sermon and how, by carefully expositing the Scripture, he leads his Jewish audience to the conclusion that Jesus the Nazarene (Acts 2:22) is, in fact, Jesus, both Lord and Christ (2:36). We will spend a couple of sessions looking at Peter’s sermon to understand what he is proclaiming and how he communicates his message.
The section of Scripture we will be exploring is Acts 2:22-36, which is the main body of the sermon and contains Peter’s most important points. I will cover this in two posts. This first post will consider the background issues of the label “Jesus the Nazarene” and the two Davidic psalms which Peter quotes in his sermon. Then the second post will build on the first post and explain the passage verse by verse.
JESUS THE NAZARENE
Peter begins the main body of his sermon by speaking of our Lord as “Jesus the Nazarene” (Acts 2:22). He begins here because this is where most of his audience is in their thinking about Jesus. To them, Jesus was a maverick prophet, an upstart who had been exposed by the religious leaders and executed by the Romans almost two months ago. For many, Jesus had probably been forgotten, just another renegade among a long line of heretics. “Yes, we remember that Jesus the Nazarene. So what?”
But there is a theological reason why Peter speaks first about Jesus the Nazarene. This label is a term of derision that speaks of Jesus’ humiliation, of His human childhood in the dusty streets of Nazareth, in an obscure backwater of Galilee of the Gentiles (Isaiah 9:1). In this description there is no hint that this Jesus is the Son of God, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, the Maker of all things visible and invisible. Instead, Peter starts with Jesus the Nazarene, “the carpenter, the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3), the one who was without honor in His hometown and who was almost killed after He gave His first public reading of Scripture (Luke 4:16-30).
Jesus the Nazarene “was despised and forsaken of men. He was despised, and we did not esteem Him” (Isaiah 53:3). After Philip tells Nathanael that they have found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:45), Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (1:46). This is the message of the label “Jesus the Nazarene.”
Jesus the Nazarene speaks of the Man we see in Philippians 2:6-8. God the Son, equal in every way with God the Father, “emptied Himself and humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Jesus is first presented as the Nazarene because it is in His abject humiliation that the Lord of glory could be “nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put to death” (Acts 2:23). So Peter begins his message by talking about Jesus the Nazarene, Jesus in His lowly and inauspicious humanity.
THE DAVIDIC PSALMS 16 AND PSALM 110
The next background issue we will consider is the nature of the two Davidic psalms Peter quotes in his sermon, Psalm 16 and Psalm 110. It is important to note that both these passages were unsolved mysteries, even to the Hebrew scholars of the day. Psalm 16:8-11 and Psalm 110:1 were acknowledged to be Messianic, but the exact meaning of these Scriptures was unknown.
For example, what David meant in Psalm 16:10 when he wrote, “You will not allow Your Holy One to undergo decay” (quoted in Acts 2:27) was a mystery to both Sadducee and Pharisee. If the Pharisees (who believed in a resurrection) had seen this verse as telling of a resurrection, they probably would have adopted that view, but then they would immediately have been confronted with the question, “Resurrection of whom?” The most likely understanding of “Your Holy One” would be the Messiah, but that would mean that the Messiah would need to die and then be resurrected before He began to decay, and none of that made any sense before Christ. So, the meaning of Psalm 16:10 remained opaque until Pentecost.
The other psalm that Peter quotes is Psalm 110. Like Psalm 16, Psalm 110 was also regarded as Messianic and like Psalm 16, the meaning of this psalm was also a mystery. Especially opaque was the understanding of Psalm 110:1 – The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.” The difficulties of interpreting this verse are perhaps even greater in the original Hebrew, which reads, “Yahweh says to my Adonai.” Here are some of the questions the interpreter needs to answer from this one verse:
- How can God speak to God (Yahweh to Adonai)?
- When does this conversation between Yahweh and Adonai take place? What is the context of this dialog?
- Where had Adonai been that He was only now taking His seat at Yahweh’s right hand?
- Although this psalm is obviously Messianic, where is the Messiah in this psalm?
Because a cohesive interpretation eluded even the wisest scholar, Psalm 110:1 remained an unsolved puzzle, shrouded in mystery until Pentecost.
But the main point here is that Peter’s sermon at Pentecost did not introduce some new heretical interpretations of well-known passages of Scripture. Rather, we see that Peter’s sermon simultaneously revealed the true meaning of two well-known but mysterious Davidic psalms and clearly demonstrated from these psalms that this Jesus is both Lord and Christ. Astonishingly, Peter, an untrained fisherman from Galilee, had suddenly emerged as an expert in Scriptural interpretation and as a powerful orator. The only explanation was that he had been filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). And also, wasn’t he one of those who had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13)?
With this understanding of the label “Jesus the Nazarene” and given some background on Psalm 16 and Psalm 110, we are ready to begin going carefully through Peter’s sermon and exegeting it verse by verse. We will do that in our next post.
SDG rmb 11/16/2022 #587