ACTS 2:38-39



by Rev. Dr. R. D. Anderson

Acts 2:38-39 is a very important text. It is situated at the beginning of the Gospel preaching of the New Testament and is often used in defence of infant baptism. It certainly instructs us as to the core of what New Testament preaching ought to be. And yet we ought not to forget that this text stands in a certain context. It is equally important that we do not rip it out of that context.

The Command of this Covenant

Anyone who was not brought up in the Reformed churches may already have questions. Covenant? Where do you find the word covenant in this text? Nowhere, that is true. Peter doesnít use the word covenant, and yet the concept of covenant is very much present in what he says. But that ought not to surprise us. Not so long ago the apostles were reclining at table with the Lord Jesus to celebrate the last Passover. Jesus had said to them: "This is the blood of my covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins" (Matt. 26:28).

As you well know, in the Bible a covenant always comes with a promise and a command. Think of Abraham. God said to him: "Walk before me and be blameless" (Gen. 17:1) - the command. But He also said: "I will be God to you and to your descendants" (Gen. 17:7) - the promise. When Christ at the Last Supper indicated that His death would inaugurate a new covenant in His blood, He also made clear where the core of Godís promise in that covenant was to be found. "This is the blood of my covenant ... for forgiveness of sins". That is the core of Godís promise to us, salvation in Christís blood means forgiveness of sins - and if our sins are forgiven, then we are reconciled to God - then He has become our God - just as He promised to Abraham.

Now, what do we find in our text? Peter comes to his audience both with a command and with a promise: "Repent!" - the command. And the promise? He mentions this in verse 39: "For the promise is for you and your children". What precisely this promise holds we shall see a little later. Let us first pay some attention to the command.

"Repent!", says Peter. To whom is he speaking? To Jews, Jews and proselytes. They were the people who had gathered here from all the ends of the earth to celebrate the feast of Pentecost with each other. Look once again at Acts 2:5. "Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven." These nations are summarised in verses 10 and 11. But why did Jews have to repent? The charge Peter made against them was crystal clear. In verse 36 he speaks of "this Jesus whom you crucified". The Jews had rejected Jesus, and yet at this feast of Pentecost there was evidence that He was still alive! Tongues as of fire had descended upon the apostles, and everyone had heard the wonder of the speaking in tongues (= languages) of the apostles. This was the fulfilment of Joelís prophecy.

The Jews who were present, at least 3,000 of them, were deeply smitten in their hearts. They had only just realised that they had participated in the crucifixion of Godís Son, the Lord Jesus Christ - someone who was now ruling from His seat in heaven. This must have been a very frightening moment for them! What could they now expect? The psalms are full of statements showing how the Messiah will avenge Himself upon his enemies. And Peter was not afraid to refer to such psalms in his sermon. In verses 34-35 he quotes Ps. 2 ...

For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: 'THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD," SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, UNTIL I MAKE THINE ENEMIES A FOOTSTOOL FOR THY FEET.' These Jews realised now that they had become the enemies of God. What now? "What must we do to be saved?" they ask Peter. Itís not just any sin that they have committed.

Then come Peterís amazing words, words of comfort, full of the grace of the almighty, holy God whom they had so insulted. "Repent, and let each of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins". Yes, in the name of the person whom they had helped to kill, ... on His name God would grant forgiveness of sins. There is a way back to God. Reconciliation with God is possible, despite the extent of their sin. That is the grace of our God. Even those who had participated in Jesusí death may be washed of their sins in Christís blood. God does not cherish a human kind of revenge. And that is a great comfort to us. No sin is so great that it cannot be covered by Godís grace and by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. But there is a condition. Forgiveness is not doled out randomly. God is righteous and He expects repentance. But also that was a gift of grace in the ears of the Jews. God wishes to accept our repentance! Praise be His name!

But what is this repentance here in our text? The first thing we need to note is that it is something that man himself must do. Peter gives a command: "Repent!" Literally this word speaks of a transformation of our thinking. Our thinking, our outlook, must be turned around. To put it succinctly, it means that one is not only deeply sorrowful for his sin, but also that he has a new outlook and motivation to change the course of his life. No longer does he wish to walk in the path of this sin, but to turn around and go back so as to show God that he really means to live for Him and not continue in his sin. It counts in the same way for God as for us. Itís not very believable if someone keeps on doing the same sin and time and again asks: "Forgive me please". You might be sorrowful, but that is not the same as repentance. True repentance or conversion means warfare, the fight against sin, a fight that under the blessing of the Lord must slowly but surely win ground. Note that I do not say that one in this life will become completely free of sin. No. But the Lord asks of us that we honestly engage ourselves in this battle against sin. If we do so, He promises to show us in the symbol of baptism how our sins are washed away in Christís blood.

In verse 37 not everything is said. Peter does not say how baptism symbolises the forgiveness of sins, nor what precisely the blood of Jesus has to do with this forgiveness. We know the answers to these questions from the rest of the New Testament. And we must suppose that Peter also explained this to the Jews. It is not for nothing that we are told in verse 40 that Peter "with many other words solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them".

We are, however, told that Peter spoke to them of Godís promise. V.39: "For you is the promise and for your children".

The Promise of this Covenant

At this point we need to focus closely on what the text says. There are many who say: "Look, this promise must be the promise of the Holy Spirit." And it may seem, at first sight, that this is so. What does Peter say? "And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children." And yet this is clearly not the meaning of the apostle.

In order to make this clear I must first say something about the reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then I will come back to the question of just what this promise is in verse 39.

What was this gift of the Holy Spirit which Peter promised? The first thing we need to say is that it is not the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in oneís heart. Of course not! For that would be completely the wrong order of things. Repent, be baptised ... and only then receive the Holy Spirit in your heart? That cannot be correct. We learn very clearly in the New Testament that true faith, true conversion, is something that the Holy Spirit Himself works in our hearts. If I know for myself that I truly believe, then I may conclude that the Holy Spirit is in my heart. If I repent of my sin, then that is evidence that I already have the Holy Spirit! But Peter does not speak here about receiving the Holy Spirit, but about receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. Within the context of Pentecost he cannot mean anything else than the special gifts of the Spirit, especially, the ability to speak in tongues. That is what is promised to these Jews if they repent and allow themselves to be baptised.

They had already seen this special gift on that first day of Pentecost, but none of them had received this gift themselves. No, they had heard the apostles using this gift. It was the group of apostles who received the gift of tongues from heaven at Pentecost. No one else. All those Jews from all over the world heard the apostles speaking in tongues. Look at verse 6-8:

And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and marvelled, saying, "Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? "But now", says Peter, "if you repent and allow yourselves to be baptised for the forgiveness of your sins, you will also receive the special gift of the Holy Spirit." Yes, even they could speak in tongues as proof of the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. But how did this come about? We learn this further in the book of Acts. Take, for example, chapter 8:14-19 which shows us how the apostles went around granting the gift of the Holy Spirit to others by laying their hands on the heads of the recipients. See also chapter 19 where the apostle Paul came across several people who had never been baptised in the name of Jesus. Letís see how that went. And it came about that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper country came to Ephesus, and found some disciples, and he said to them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" And they said to him, "No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit." And he said, "Into what then were you baptised?" And they said, "Into John's baptism." And Paul said, "John baptised with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus." And when they heard this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. And thatís how it happened. "Repent, be baptised, and then you will receive the special gift of the Holy Spirit (by the laying on of the hands of the apostles)".

But what then is the great promise of which Peter speaks in verse 39? That Peter cannot be referring to the reception of the special gift of the Spirit is clear from the fact that this promise is for everyone - even descendants who are far off. The special gift of the Spirit could only be distributed by the apostles. When they died, the special gift of the Spirit died out with them. But Peter makes it clear by his own words that this is not what he means. For, although it is not very clear in translation, he refers back to the words of the prophet Joel. The great promise is the promise of the prophet Joel, the promise of salvation, Acts 2:21 ...

And it shall be, that everyone who calls on the name of the lord shall be saved. In the prophecy of Joel 2:32 we can read the rest of that verse. There it reads: And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the LORD will be delivered; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be those who escape, as the LORD has said, even among the survivors whom the LORD calls. It is clear that for Joel the promise concerns salvation/ deliverance. Now those last words of Joel "whom the Lord calls" are precisely the words which Peter refers to "The promise is for you and your children ... as many as the Lord our God shall call to himself." In the original Greek we see Peter adapting the words of Joel to his own sentence. It is unfortunate that this is not indicated in most translations. Peter uses the standard Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. And it is this promise of salvation from Joel that he is thinking of here. This also agrees with what he has just said: "Repent, and let each of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins". Forgiveness of sins is the essence of our salvation! This is the great theme of Peterís admonition as verse 40 confirms: And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation!" Peter was concerned with their salvation. And God gives this promise not only to the Jews who were present here, but also to their children and for all who are far off. There is forgiveness of sins for all.

But now we come up against an important problem. Peter says: "Repent, and let each of you be baptised for the forgiveness of your sins." But most of us were already baptised as children! Is that not in contradiction to the order presented to us in this text?

Our text says, first the command ("repent") and then the symbol of the promise (baptism). That is clear. But the order in our text ought not to appear strange to us, for God had given the same order to Abraham. Abraham had to first believe. Only then did he receive the symbol of the promise, in his case circumcision. In Gen. 17 the Lord comes to Abraham with his covenant and the sign of circumcision. But years earlier, in chapter 15, God had recognised Abrahamís faith. There in chapter 15 God states that Abrahamís faith was reckoned for righteousness (15:6). In Rom. 4 the apostle Paul discusses the significance of this fact.

What is my point? The order, first repent, and then let yourself be baptised, is the normal order for people who are admitted into Godís covenant, both in the Old Testament and in the New. But if you have been admitted into Godís covenant and have received the covenant sign yourself, then God gives that same promise not only to you but also to your children. It is extremely significant that Peter also speaks of Godís promise of salvation in this way - and then to a group of Jews. The promise is for them and for their children. God had said the same to Abraham. Abraham knew that, because of that, the sign or symbol was not only given to him as an adult believer, but also to his children. The Jews who heard Peter all knew the history of Godís dealings with Abraham. The connection between salvation for the believer and the promise for both the believer and his children could not possibly have been missed.

It is true that this connection is only implied in the context here. Peter does not explain everything in our text, at least not for us. For the Jews he gave much extra explanation. We read about that in verse 40. But we have the rest of the New Testament to fill in the details for us. Think of Col. 2:11-12 where Paul instructs us that baptism has come in the place of circumcision. Think also of the rest of the book of Acts where time and again we are told that entire households were baptised. Godís grace is not only for adult believers, but also for their children. Praise Him for that great grace!

Valkenburg, The Netherlands

June, 1997

(translated by the author, October, 1998)

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised July 1999 / Copyright 1999