2. The Preaching of Peter


2.1 Introduction

There are five messages of Peter recorded for us in Acts. The first is on the day of Pentecost (2:14-39), and the second is on the occasion of the healing of the lame man (3:11-4:4). This miracle leads to the arrest of Peter and John, and Peter speaks to the rulers (4:8-12). Later they are re-arrested for teaching in the name of Jesus (5:29-32). After the scattering of the church (8:1) we read of Peter’s itinerary (9:32-43), but no message is recorded until the visit to Cornelius (10:34-48).

2.2 Audience and Context

Pentecost
Acts 2:14-39

Temple Beggar
Acts 3:11-4:4

First Arrest
Acts 4:8-12

Second Arrest
Acts 5:29-32

Cornelius
Acts 10:34-43

Peter is preaching 
to a Jewish audience 
on the day of Pentecost. 
The miracle of tongues 
has just occurred.
The location is the temple, with a Jewish audience. Peter and 
John have just healed a man lame from birth, who is now leaping 
and praising God.

The rulers have 
arrested Peter 
and John, who 
now address the Sanhedrin.

 

Having been freed 
miraculously by an angel, once again
they are before the council because they refuse to stop preaching.

 

Peter has gone to 
Caesarea as a 
result of a series of supernatural events, and Cornelius has just reported his vision to Peter. His friends and close relatives (Gentiles) are gathered.

2.3 Structure

The sermons have been divided into parallel sections, and a title assigned to each. In order to emphasize the correspondence between them, key phrases in each passage are highlighted in bold typeface. If there is a second set of parallel phrases within a section, then it is set in bold italic. References to ‘witness’ and ‘testimony’ permeate the whole of the sermons, and these are identified by underlining.

A. Sermon Introduction

Pentecost
Acts 2:14-39

Temple Beggar
Acts 3:11-4:4

First Arrest
Acts 4:8-12

Second Arrest
Acts 5:29-32

Cornelius
Acts 10:34-43

14 But Peter, standing up 
with the eleven, raised 
his voice and said to 
them, "Men of Judea 
and all who dwell in
Jerusalem
, let this be 
known to you, and 
heed my words. 
15
"For these are 
not drunk, as you 
suppose, since it is 
only the third hour 
of the day
. 16 "But 
this is what was 
spoken by the 
prophet Joel:
[quotation 
from Joel]
11 Now as the lame man
who was healed held on 
to Peter and John, all the 
people ran together to 
them in the porch which is 
called Solomon's, greatly 
amazed. 12 So when 
Peter saw it, he 
responded to the people: 
"Men of Israel, why do 
you marvel at this? Or 
why look so intently at 
us, as though by our 
own power or godliness 
we had made this man walk?
8 Then Peter, 
filled with the 
Holy Spirit, said 
to them, "Rulers 
of the people 
and elders of 
Israel
: 9 "If we 
this day are 
judged for a 
good deed done 
to a helpless 
man, by what 
means he has 
been made well
,
29 But Peter 
and the other 
apostles 
answered and 
said: "We 
ought to obey 
God rather 
than men
.
34 Then Peter opened 
his mouth and said: 
"In truth I perceive 
that God shows no 
partiality.
35 "But in 
every nation whoever 
fears him and works 
righteousness is 
accepted by him.
 
36
 "The word which 
God sent to the 
children of Israel, 
preaching peace 
through Jesus Christ; 
he is Lord of all;

General pattern

Peter usually begins his sermon with an address such as “Men of Israel” and then states the issue which he will use as a point of contact. On the first three occasions a miracle had just occurred, and the issue was the explanation for this miracle. He challenges them: “we are not drunk”, “it is not our power or godliness”, “do you condemn us because of the name in which the miracle was done?” There had to be some explanation for the miracle.

On the fourth occasion what was at issue was ‘whom should they obey’. A miracle had occurred with the freeing of the Apostles from prison, but Peter makes no direct mention of this. However 5:22-25 tells us that the chief priests were in a state of consternation at this miracle, and Peter’s conclusion in 5:32 almost certainly alludes to this as he claims that the Holy Spirit is their witness. The fifth sermon takes up the issue ‘whom does God accept?’

Differences

These five introductions are where we would expect to find most of the variation due to the different occasions, and this proves to be the case. When Peter is preaching a sermon proper, as on the first two occasions, he begins with a formal address. On the third occasion he seems to have been given an opportunity to make a speech to the council. The address to Cornelius’s household is different to the others in a number of respects: it does not occur in the first few days following the outpouring of the Spirit, but much later; the location is not Jerusalem; and the audience is not Jewish but Gentile. The differences found between this and the other four messages will be particularly interesting to this study.

Discussion

Peter always picks an issue which will lend itself to declaring that Jesus is now exalted and demands our repentance. The miracles make ideal subjects for the first three sermons. In the fourth, a miracle is indirectly referenced, but the direct issue is one of authority, and Peter is able to use this as an effective link to the subject of the exalted Christ. The final sermon is more problematic, in that he does not need to give a reason for his message—his audience is only too anxious to hear him. The issue is what it takes to be accepted by God (v.35), as can be seen also from the conclusion (v.43). An unusual feature is that before he starts the sermon proper in v.37, he gives a short summary of his message (v.36) which contains most of the main elements in a single sentence.

An element common to all the sermons is that Peter does not force himself on unwilling or indifferent audiences but always uses as his starting point an issue in which they are interested.

B. “You crucified Jesus,”

Pentecost
Acts 2:14-39

Temple Beggar
Acts 3:11-4:4

First Arrest
Acts 4:8-12

Second Arrest
Acts 5:29-32

Cornelius
Acts 10:34-43

22 "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves also know; 23 "Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; 13 "The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his Servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go. 14 "But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15 "and killed the Prince of life, 10 "let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, 30b Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. 37 "that word you know, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: 38 "how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 "And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree.

General pattern

The name of Jesus is proclaimed, and then the Jews are accused of murder. In three cases “Jesus of Nazareth” is used, although they could have been in little doubt about whom he was talking. This expression occurs seven times in Acts, four on the lips of Peter, one by Stephen, one by Paul and one by Jesus himself in his vision to Paul. It may serve as an emphatic, as it re-enforces the identity of the individual, or it may be a term of disparagement, since the Jews despised those from this region. Emphasis is also given in the first and third sentence by the formulŠ “hear these words” and “let it be known to you all”.

The accusation is couched in extremely strong language. Peter mentions the manner of death in all but one case. Twice it is stated that they hung him on a tree, an allusion to Deuteronomy 21:22-23, “If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.” This is the punishment of the rebellious son, the glutton and drunkard (Deut 21:18-20), and this is how the Jews viewed Jesus.

In three cases Peter emphasizes the culpability of the Jews and the injustice of the punishment by using the expressions “lawless hands”, “you denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you”, and “you murdered”. The murderer was Barabbas, a zealot (Luke 23:19). Pilate was even determined to let him go (3:13). As will be seen in a moment, this condemnation and murder of Christ is to be understood in conjunction with God’s vindication of him in the resurrection.

Differences

The first two sermons are strongest in their condemnation of the Jews, removing all excuses from them. They had seen Jesus’ miracles, and yet illegally crucified him. They even forced Pilate’s hand, exchanging the Holy One for a murderer. Peter is not so forceful in his condemnation in the third and fourth sermons where he is directly addressing those who condemned Jesus. However, not too much can be made of this, since the third and fourth accounts are much briefer than the others. It is interesting to see how Peter modifies his basic sermon when addressing Gentiles, by changing “you murdered by hanging on a tree” to “they killed by hanging on a tree”.

In the second and fourth sermons, there is a slight alteration from the sequence found in the other accounts. In the second sermon, Jesus’ glorification is mentioned earlier than his death, and in the fourth, his death and resurrection are interchanged. These differences do not appear to be significant because the emphasis is on the contrast between the verdict of God and the verdict of man, as will be seen.

C. “but God raised him up again”

 Pentecost
Acts 2:14-39

Temple Beggar
Acts 3:11-4:4

First Arrest
Acts 4:8-12

Second Arrest
Acts 5:29-32

Cornelius
Acts 10:34-43

24 "whom God raised 
up, having loosed the pains of death
, because 
it was not possible 
that he should be held by it. 25 "For David says concerning 
him:  [quotation 
from Psalm 16]
 32 "This Jesus God has raised up, 
of which we are all witnesses
.
15b whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses. 10b whom God raised from the dead, 30a "The God of our fathers raised up 40 "Him God raised 
up on the third 
day
, and showed 
him openly,
41 "not 
to all the people, 
but to witnesses 
chosen before by 
God, even to us who ate and drank with him after he arose from the dead
.

General pattern

The statement that “God raised him up from the dead” is one of the strongest structural features of Peter’s sermons. It occurs in almost identical form at this point in every message. In each case there is a close parallel with the crucifixion:

You            hung him on a tree            (counted him accursed by God)

God            raised him up              (vindicated him)

The challenge to the Jews is that they were horribly wrong in their judgement, and in so doing they had set themselves up in opposition to God. Mounce points out that there are “many direct and indirect allusions to Isaiah 53 that occur throughout the speeches in Acts”[13] and tabulates the following:

Acts 3  [14] Isaiah 53
v.13   “God... glorified his servant whom you 
delivered up
52:13   “My servant... shall be glorified
53:6     “the Lord delivered him up”
v.14   “the righteous one” 53:11   “the righteous one”
v.18   “that his Christ should suffer” 53   The entire chapter portrays the suffering of 
the Servant

It was not just an innocent person they had judged guilty, but the very prince of life. The later demand for repentance must be seen in this context.

The point that it is God who has raised him up also serves to lead into the climax of the sermons, viz., Jesus has now been installed in the place of power.

Three out of the five times he introduces witnesses to support this crucial point. In the first sermon he also brings in the supporting testimony of the Old Testament. This is such an important element that it will be discussed separately.

Differences

We have briefer accounts of the third and fourth sermons, and so it is not surprising that they are briefer at this point. Most of the differences lie in the witnesses that are brought to bear. The Sanhedrin would have been unlikely to accept their personal witness to the resurrection, and so, as we shall see, other witnesses are brought forward.

D. “and exalted him to a position of power (which explains the miracles)”

Pentecost
Acts 2:14-39

Temple Beggar
Acts 3:11-4:4

First Arrest
Acts 4:8-12

Second Arrest
Acts 5:29-32

Cornelius
Acts 10:34-43

33 "Therefore being 
exalted to the right 
hand of God
, and 
having received from 
the Father the promise
 of the Holy Spirit
, he poured out this which 
you now see and hear.
 
34
"For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at My right hand, 35 Till I make Your enemies Your footstool."' 36 "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."
(v.13 the God of our fathers, glorified) 16 "And his name, through faith in his name, has made this man strong, whom you see and know. Yes, the faith which comes through him has given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all. by him this man stands here before you whole. 11 "This is the 'stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.' 31 "Him God has exalted to his right hand to be Prince and Savior,

42 "And he commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is he who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead.

 

General pattern

Following on from the resurrection, all five sermons have some statement regarding Christ’s exalted position of power, but there is a variety of expression in the way that this position is described by Peter.

Differences

Each sermon has a different expression of Jesus’ new authority: “received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit... made... both Lord and Christ”; “his name... has made this man strong”; “has become the chief cornerstone”; “Prince and Saviour”; and “Judge of the living and the dead”. Each expression matches the issue on which Peter began the sermon. So: 1) The Spirit has come because Jesus has poured him out. 2) & 3) The lame man is healed by the exalted power of Jesus. 4) The one to be obeyed is the Prince at the right hand of the Father. 5) Peter’s reason for naming Jesus as ‘Judge’ in the fifth sermon is not quite so clear, but it may be that this universal function suits the initial reference to “every nation”.

E. “so repent so that your sins will be forgiven and you will receive the promise.”

Pentecost
Acts 2:14-39

Temple Beggar
Acts 3:11-4:4

First Arrest
Acts 4:8-12

Second Arrest
Acts 5:29-32

Cornelius
Acts 10:34-43

37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" 38 Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 "For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call." 17 "Yet now, brethren, 
I know that you did it in ignorance, as did also 
your rulers. 18 "But those 
things which God foretold 
by the mouth of all his 
prophets, that the Christ 
would suffer, he has thus fulfilled. 19 "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, 

20
"and that he may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, 21 "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. 22 "For Moses 
truly said to the fathers
, [quotation from Deuteronomy]  24 "Yes, and all the prophets, 
from Samuel and those who follow, as many as have spoken, have also foretold these days
. 25 "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.' 26 "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."
12 "Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 "And we are his witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him." 43 "To him all the prophets witness that, through his name, whoever believes in him will receive remission of sins."

General pattern

All sermons end with an appeal to respond to the message. The appeal is on the basis of God’s vindication of the one whom they have condemned. Elements present in one or more sermons, are:

Sermon: 1 2 3 4 5
repent / be converted * *   *  

believe

        *
be baptized         *v.48
sins forgiven / saved * * * * *

gift of Spirit / promise/ blessing

* *   * *v.36

It can be seen that there is a call for repentance or belief in all but the third sermon (of which we have a very brief report and in which the appeal is less direct). The most consistent feature is the offer of forgiveness of sins. In sermons one, two and four the forgiveness is linked to repentance. In sermon five it is linked to belief, and in the third sermon only the word saved is used, but the implication is that it is from sin.

 On the first two occasions the appeal is very direct, and associated with the promise that their sins will be forgiven. The sin that is at the forefront is that of murdering Jesus, as can be seen by the sequence in chapter 2 of accusation (v.36), response: “what shall we do?” (v.37) and answer “repent... for the remission of sins” (v.38). The same close link can be seen in chapter 3:17-19. The link is not so clear in the third sermon, but in the fourth the expression “to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” almost certainly has in view the murder accusation of the previous verse.

In the fifth sermon, Peter is not speaking to Jews, yet retains the same structural elements. He modifies the “your sins” of sermon one, and the “to Israel” of sermon four, to a more encompassing “whoever believes”. This is in keeping with Peter’s own growing understanding of the spread of the Gospel. Also, in this sermon to Gentiles, he does not mention repentance, but ‘believe’ is substituted. It is difficult to extract any significance from this—clearly Gentiles need to repent as can be seen in the sermons of Paul. A possible explanation is that ‘repent’ is used in the first four sermons because Peter is addressing Jews who have just condemned the Christ as accursed. His demand that they repent is very concrete—they must turn about from condemning Jesus to acknowledging him as Lord.

The word ‘repent’ would have an Old Testament connotation to the Jews. The prophets called Israel to repent (shuv) and turn back from their idolatry (e.g. Zech 1:3). This idolatry motif will be seen more clearly later in Stephen’s speech.

In four out of the five sermons, the negative “remission of sins” is balanced with a positive promise. This is the promise of the gift of the Spirit in sermons one and four, and more generally blessing in sermon two. The fifth sermon does not have this promise element at the end, but in his summary at the start of the message, Peter says “preaching peace through Jesus Christ” (10:36).

Differences

We noted in considering the introductions, that the occasional nature of the sermons introduced differences at that point. This is also true with the conclusions, as Peter applies the sermon to each specific situation. Peter uses his basic sermon structure as raw material which he moulds to the needs of the situation. In particular, the conclusions answer the issues raised in the introductions as will now be discussed.

2.4 Common Features

Correspondence between Introductions and Conclusions

A striking feature of Peter’s sermons is that each ends on the same issue on which it began. He rounds the sermon off with a climax that answers his initial question, and in doing so demands a response.

Sermon one begins with the issue of how the miraculous tongues are to be explained. In the climactic conclusion, Peter declares that the long awaited promise has now been fulfilled and the Spirit is available to all who will call upon the Lord.

Sermon two raises the question of how a lame man could be made to walk. The initial answer is in v.16, but Peter goes on to argue that this is but a specific example of a more general promise, and the blessing that has come upon this lame man is available to all. The point is very similar to that made in the first sermon, but it is much more developed in answer to the vivid and concrete example of blessing portrayed in the leaping and dancing of the lame man.

Sermon three again takes its starting point from a miracle, but here the question is focused more on the source of the power, rather than the coming of the eschatological blessing. After concluding that “by him this man stands here before you whole”, Peter points out that it was they who had rejected Jesus. The climax is that there is “no other name under heaven”.

Sermon four hinges on the question of whom the Apostles should obey. The end precisely matches the beginning: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (v.29) compared with “the Holy Spirit [bears witness] whom God has given to those who obey him” (v.32). Peter effectively challenges the Jews as to who are the truly obedient ones? His answer is that God bears witness to the obedient ones by means of the Spirit, so in effect he is saying: “If we let God decide between us, as to who is truly obedient, then he bears witness to us and not to you.” This is a conclusion that nearly cost him his life (5:33).

Sermon five at first sight does not have a clear question at the beginning, but when the answer at the end is considered, the question becomes more apparent. The resolution of the issue is “whoever believes in him will receive remission of sins”. The issue at the beginning is ‘who God accepts’. It is those who work righteousness, regardless of their nationality. But the question of who these people actually are, and the nature of what God requires from them is answered at the end: ‘God accepts all those who believe.’

Other Structural Elements

Bailey[15] gives Acts 2:23-26 as an example of an inverse parallel structure in the form 1-10, 10-1 and also 1-5 5-1, 1-5 5-1. His analysis shows the sermon as having five themes: death, resurrection, witness, enthronement and coming of the Spirit. Peter moves backwards and forwards through the themes four times during the message. There are four mentions of death, four of being raised, four times witnesses are introduced, there are four mentions of enthronement or exaltation and four allusions to a future promise. Whether or not one accepts his analysis (and I think there are good grounds for doing so), there is no disputing that these are the five main themes of the message.

2.5 Discussion

Themes

The above structural analysis breaks Peter’s sermons down into five themes:

  1. Introduction: an issue is raised
  2. You have crucified Jesus
  3. but God has raised him up again
  4. and exalted him to a position of power.
  5. So repent so that your sins may be forgiven and you may receive the promise!

These can be compared to the six themes enumerated by C. H. Dodd:

First, the age of fulfilment has dawned.

Secondly, this has taken place through the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus...

  1. His Davidic descent...
  2. His ministry...
  3. His death...
  4. His resurrection...

Thirdly, by virtue of the resurrection, Jesus had been exalted at the right hand of God, as Messianic head of the new Israel...

Fourthly, the Holy Spirit in the Church is the sign of Christ’s present power and glory...

Fifthly, the Messianic Age will shortly reach its consummation in the return of Christ...

Finally, the kerygma always closes with an appeal for repentance, the offer of forgiveness and of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of  “salvation,” that is of “the life of the Age to Come,” to those who enter the elect community.[16]

Dodd’s first theme only occurs properly in Acts 2. He brings the conclusion of the Acts 3 sermon forward to the beginning in his parallel chart[17] which rather upsets the structure. His second theme has four parts to it, but the Davidic descent is only found in Acts 2 and the reference to the ministry only in Acts 2 and Acts 10. Two of the most striking themes of Peter: that of the murder accusation and the resurrection are relegated to sub-points of theme two. The third theme—the exaltation to power agrees with my fourth theme. Dodd then makes the pouring out of the Spirit his fourth theme, even though it is only present in two of the messages and there as a direct result of the exaltation. Dodd’s fifth theme, the imminent return, again is only found properly in Acts 3, since the reference to Jesus being ordained a Judge in Acts 10 does not necessarily mean a return. Dodd’s final theme is in agreement with my list.

It seems that Dodd’s analysis of Peter’s preaching is distorted by two factors. 1) In his methodology he has already analysed Paul’s preaching (although this analysis is not very balanced as will be shown later), and the categories used in this earlier analysis have been applied to Peter. 2) Dodd’s own belief in a fully realized eschatology has led him to emphasize this in his first and fifth categories, where there is limited textual support. Dodd’s work is extremely stimulating and has triggered much work in this area, but he had been widely criticized as being “far too wooden and fixed”.[18] Yet his essential thesis is correct—the original Gospel message, at least that preached by Peter, had a very definite outline.

Summary

Among the five points I have presented above, all occur in every sermon without exception. The middle three points, the death, resurrection and exultation of Jesus, reoccur in almost identical form in every message. Most of the variation between sermons is in the introductions or in the concluding applications. Even here Peter always follows the pattern of concluding by returning to the original issue and re-evaluating it against the fact of the resurrection and exaltation of Christ.

Concept of Witness

Peter repeatedly appeals to witnesses in his sermons. The appeal is not always at the same place, or to support the same point, and so it is not possible to categorize them as part of his outline, but the idea of witness is so strong that it must be considered separately.

Trites has performed a very valuable service by investigating the concept of ‘witness’ in secular Greek, Old Testament and New Testament literature. He offered his work as a complement to Dodd’s Apostolic Preaching, and studied the use of   (marturia) rather than (kerugma), pointing out that occurrences of the former outnumber the latter in the New Testament by more than six to one.[19] He writes:

The Book of Acts, like the Fourth Gospel, shows a tremendous interest in the idea of witness. This is not surprising, for both Luke and John are concerned that people should believe the claims of Christ and enter into a personal experience of his salvation. For both writers the significance of witness lies in its ability to induce faith. The operative question for Luke as for John is: On what grounds can people believe, or on what evidence ought they to believe?[20]

He argues that in New Testament times the word (marturia) had not yet become a dead metaphor, and the courtroom was still very much in view. The above quotation continues:

In other words, that facts of the Christian faith and their significance are being presented in an atmosphere of hostility, contention and debate. Under these conditions it is not strange that Luke should make use of the language of the courtroom.[21]

This suggestion that the idea of courtroom witness is a prominent concept in Peter’s sermons is strengthened by the consideration that the first two mention details of the trial of Jesus, and the third and fourth actually took place in a courtroom. One cannot but agree with Trites that Jesus “had been condemned by the Jews as a criminal and sentenced to die on the charge of blasphemy (cf. Mk 14:63 pars.; Jn 18:30; 19:7). After the resurrection the trial of Jesus, in effect, is reopened and fresh evidence is presented by the apostles to get the Jews to change their verdict.”[22] His approach echoes the (reeve) motif of the Hebrew courtroom, where the Old Testament prophets would call Israel to account (e.g. Isa 41:21). There are echoes of Deuteronomy 32:1 and Isaiah 1:2 where heaven and earth are called to bear witness to God’s case against Israel.

Trites argues that behind Luke’s presentation of witnesses is Deuteronomy 19:15, “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.” He goes on to reason that the whole of Acts is formulated as a legally acceptable testimony, in accordance with Deuteronomy 19:15 where two or three witnesses are required. This accounts for the often noted use of doublets or triplets in Luke.[23]

Examples of personal witness

Peter offers the testimony of himself or others six times in the sermons. Once it is to the miracles of Christ (2:22, 10:39), three times to the resurrection (2:32, 3:15, 10:41), once to his exaltation (10:42) and once in general (5:32). What is striking in these witness statements, is that without exception the object of their witness is what God has done. This can be seen as follows:

10:38-39

God was with him. And we are witnesses of all things which he did

2:32

This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses

3:15

whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses

10:40-41

Him God raised up on the third day, and showed him openly, 41 "not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us...

10:42-43

he commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is he who was ordained by God...

5:32

And we are his witnesses to these things [that God has raised and exalted Jesus]

If, as Trites suggests, Peter sees himself in the setting of a court of law, demanding that the evidence be re-considered, then it is not his, or anyone else’s personal opinion of Jesus that is being submitted as evidence, but God’s own verdict on him. Peter does not set himself against the Jews, but places God against the Jews. This conclusion is reinforced by observation that in all of the five sermons he joins together the death and resurrection in one statement, “you killed but God raised up”.

Trites’ statement that “fresh evidence is presented by the apostles to get the Jews to change their verdict”[24] could be interpreted to imply that the Jews had made an understandable mistake because of lack of evidence, but this is not the thrust of Peter’s message. As far as he is concerned, they are highly culpable for their lawless murder in the face of so much evidence. In effect, Peter turns around the law court analogy and places the Jews in the dock. The evidence that supports Jesus also condemns them. In this second trial, Jesus himself is the Judge (10:42), and the only mitigating circumstance is that they “did it in ignorance” (3:17).

Although Trites is right in saying that Peter is trying to get the Jews to change their verdict, much more is involved. Peter is trying to get the Jews to see themselves as condemned criminals, guilty before God of the worst crime. They had judged Jesus as an apostate, cursed by God and outside the covenant. But it is they themselves who have cut themselves off from the covenant blessing. The sequence in 3:11 of: “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers... Jesus... you denied”, places the Jews outside of the stream of promise flowing through history. The response that Peter wants to see is not, “we agree, it was a mistake”, but the cry of those who are cut to the heart: “Men and brethren what shall we do?”(2:37).

At this point, Peter’s response is somewhat surprising, for he tells them that it is because of the covenant promises which belong to them, they are able to be forgiven: “For the promise is to you and to your children...” (2:39), “You are the sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made to our fathers...” (3:25). By repenting, i.e. acknowledging that it is they who have violated the covenant, and Christ, the accursed one, is in fact their Lord, they are re-admitted to the covenant and receive the long promised blessings.

It is worthwhile considering the differences between the way Peter addressed Jews and Gentiles. The context of Acts 10 gives reason to believe that Cornelius would have been well acquainted with the Old Testament and would have understood the implications of the manner in which Jesus died. Peter’s allusion to Deuteronomy 21:22-23 “they killed by hanging on a tree” (10:39) supports this assumption. Cornelius is being asked, along with the Jews, to accept as Lord the one that was cursed, but there is not such a clear challenge for him to see his own sin. This aspect is not missing, since “remission of sins” is required, but the stress seems to be on a challenge to those who believe the prophets, to accept that “To him all the prophets witness” (10:43). Even John the Baptist (10:37) was mentioned in order to stress the continuity of Jesus of Nazareth with the Old Testament covenant.

Another feature of the address in Acts 10 is that there is more appeal to witnesses here than anywhere else. Four times, Peter substantiates his claim with a testimony: of the five points of the sermon, all but the first, the introduction, are backed up with a witness. A likely explanation for this is that on the other occasions, Peter could point to a dramatic miracle as powerful evidence, whereas here there was only a vision. Trites makes the comment:

Another point to be observed is the fact that the apostles are witnesses to Christ in at least three senses. First, they are witnesses to the fact, for they can testify to the facts of the public ministry of Jesus, as is clear from the speeches in Acts 1, 2 and 10. Second, they are witnesses to character (cf. III Jn 12) for they can testify to the holiness and righteousness of the life of Jesus (3:14) and can point to the positive works of healing and benevolence which flowed from it (10:38). Third, they are witnesses to the Christian faith; their testimony is not simply a testimony of fact, but a testimony to lead the Jews, and later the Gentiles, to faith in Christ. All three senses in which the apostles serve as witnesses are illustrated in Peter’s speech to Cornelius in Acts 10:39-43. What a tremendous weight Luke places upon the idea of witness here, using witness words four times in five verses![25]

Examples of the witness of the Spirit

The personal testimony is supported by the testimony of the Spirit in five places. That Peter has in view the Deuteronomic idea of two or three witnesses is suggested by 5:32, “And we are his witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit”. The five cases are as follows:

2:22

a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through him in your midst,

2:33

the promise of the Holy Spirit, he poured out this which you now see and hear

3:16

his name... has made this man strong, whom you see and know.

4:10 by him this man stands here before you whole
5:32 And we are his witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him

In all cases but the first, the Holy Spirit is witness to the new exalted state of Christ. The witness of the Spirit is shown in the miracles of tongues, healing and release from prison. It is only in the case of Cornelius that no mention is made of this witness, and here Peter substitutes the witness of the prophets.

Examples of the witness of the Old Testament

There are six examples of an appeal to the Old Testament as a witness. These are most developed in the longer reports found in Acts 2 and 3, yet are present in all but one of the speeches.

2:16 this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
2:25-31 For David says concerning him... he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ.
2:34 For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself
3:22-24 For Moses truly said to the fathers... Yes, and all the prophets, from Samuel and those who follow, as many as have spoken, have also foretold these days.
4:11 This is the 'stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.’
5:32 To him all the prophets witness

The apostles had a r˘le which was fundamentally different in one respect to that of preachers today. They had to convince the people of God that something new had happened, that God had spoken new revelation which would radically change their understanding of the covenant. In Exodus 4:10, at the renewal of the Mosaic covenant, God ratified the covenant with “marvels such as have not been done in all the earth”. At the inauguration of the new covenant, God once again provides ratification by means of miracles.

That is why it is essential that when preaching to Jews, or adherents, Peter should show both the continuity between the new and the old, and the divine stamp of authority on the new revelation. Miracles were needed, because miracles were prophesied as signs associated with the coming of the Messiah. Trites views the Old Testament as corroborative: “The witness of both the apostles and the Spirit is strengthened by a third witness, that of the Old Testament scriptures (10:43), which serves to confirm and corroborate the evidence presented by the other two sources.”[26] But it is more than that. A message to Jews about their Messiah that was not firmly rooted in Old Testament prophecy would have been a faulty message.

The “Two Witness” concept in Luke

Mention was made above of the Deuteronomic requirement for two or three witnesses, and of Trites’ argument that this concept forms the basis for all of Luke’s two volume work. The reader cannot fail to have noticed that of the five sermons of Peter, the first and second are very similar both in setting and in content—both are public addresses to the Jewish crowds and are reported at length, including quotations from the Old Testament. After both the number who believed is mentioned in thousands. The third and fourth sermons also share much in common, both being brief defences before the Jewish rulers. One cannot escape the suggestion that once again Luke is deliberately presenting the evidence to the reader in dual form.

This raises the question of the fifth sermon, but as we will see later, it bears a strong resemblance to that of Paul in Acts 13, fact that will be seen to be of great significance.

Trites asks what we are to conclude from the “emphasis upon the eye-witness character of apostolic preaching”. He replies that “the Christian faith rests upon historical facts, and Luke in both his Gospel preface and Acts stresses the importance of the apostolic witness for this reason.”[27]

Eschatological Elements

Peter begins his explanation of the strange events of Pentecost with the proclamation that “this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel” (2:16). The time of promise and prophecy had come to an end and the time of fulfilment (3:18), the “last days” (2:17) had begun. According to Ridderbos, “The first thing that comes clearly to the fore in Peter’s speeches, and what one might call the ground on which all his preaching rests, is the consciousness that the time of eschatological fulfilment has dawned.”[28] For Peter, Jesus Christ was not simply another prophet after the Old Testament tradition, he was the one to whom all the previous prophets had pointed: “Yes, and all the prophets, from Samuel and those who follow, as many as have spoken, have also foretold these days”(3:24). Hoekema comments on Acts 2:16-17": “When Peter quotes these words and applies them to the event which has just occurred, he is saying in effect: ‘We are in the last days now.’ ”[29]

Later, it will be seen that Paul also preaches the turning of the ages, even for the Gentiles, since God “now commands all men everywhere to repent” (17:30). Christ’s coming has divided history into two ages. Paul’s epistles develop this theme much more fully, but in his work on Paul, Ridderbos writes concerning the early church: “For them, too, the advent of Christ, his appearance, death, and resurrection, as well as the gift of the Holy Spirit, were consummation of the history of redemption, eschatological event. Thus Peter at once expounded it on Pentecost in the light of the prophecy of Joel (cf. Acts 2:17)”.[30]

The eschatological element in the preaching of Acts is not a separate theme, added in as an afterthought, but part of the very weave of the fabric. It provides part of the very reason for the message: “things have changed, there is a new order, God has spoken, giving us his final word in Jesus Christ!” Two thousand years later, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are still in a remarkable period of history, when God’s grace is so freely and openly offered.

The use of the Old Testament

Peter’s quotations from the Old Testament have not been given a detailed treatment in the above analysis, but their importance must not be underestimated. They serve a valuable function as a testimony to the events, but their purpose extends beyond that.

The Old Testament does not merely confirm the apostolic preaching concerning Christ a posteriori. It rendered the apostles a far greater service. It had a formative significance for their preaching. The apostles actually came to understand who Jesus was and what significance His coming and work had, from the Old Testament. The light which they still lacked in many respects dawned on them from the Old Testament.[31]

There is not space for a detailed treatment here, but it should be noted that the use that the Apostles made of the Old Testament faces us with many challenges and difficulties. Much of this is due to our own limited understanding of the theological milieu of the first century, or of the Old Testament itself—we have not had the benefit of direct instruction from Christ (Luke 4:32)!

Some of the difficulties can be overcome if we recognise that New Testament writers would often assume the whole context of the chapter or book from which they were quoting. For example, “It is noteworthy that the context of Joel’s prophecy contains a call to repentance in hope of divine forgiveness (Joel 2:12-14)—a call which is echoed by Peter later on (v.38).”[32] [33]

[13] Mounce, p.114

[14] Mounce, p.114

[15] Bailey, p.65-67

[16] Dodd, p.21-23

[17] Dodd, fold-out chart at end of book.

[18] See Drummond, p.209 ff. for a survey of Dodd’s critics.

[19] Trites, p.1

[20] Trites, p.128

[21] Trites, p.128

[22] Trites, p.129

[23] Trites, p.133

[24] Trites, p.129

[25] Trites, p.144

[26] Trites, p.153

[27] Trites, p.138

[28] Ridderbos, Speeches of Peter, p.12

[29] Hoekema, p.16

[30] Ridderbos, Paul, p.48

[31] Ridderbos, Speeches of Peter, p.25

[32] Bruce, Commentary, p.68

[33] See also the comments that Ridderbos make on the Joel prophecy in  The Coming of The Kingdom, p.466,467

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