Rightly Understanding Peter’s Answer

(Series: “The Early Church of Jerusalem” post #4)

Peter’s Pentecost sermon, which was the first sermon of the church age, caused his listeners to ask, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). His answer was, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38, N.I.V.). However, in my previous post I explained why we shouldn’t take Peter’s words to mean any of the following:

  • the requirement of repentance cancels out the requirement of belief/faith
  • water baptism is essential for salvation
  • we must baptize in the highly specific name of “Jesus Christ”

Okay, so why did Peter give the answer that he gave? The obvious answer is that God the Holy Spirit, who now dwelt inside him, prompted him to give it, just as the Spirit had prompted all the words of the preceding sermon. But why did God prompt such an answer? The fact is, there are multiple possible factors that might have come into play. Since these factors are all plausible, any one or even all of them might have applied.

Factor #1: The Greek preposition translated as “for” in the words “for the forgiveness of sins” is eis, and it can mean “on the basis of.” For example, eis is used in Matthew 12:41, where Jesus says, “The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at (eis, on the basis of) the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here” (N.K.J.V.). The point is that it’s possible that what Peter actually said was, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ on the basis of the forgiveness of your sins.” You see, this places the salvation (forgiveness of sin) before the baptizing.

Factor #2: In Matthew 16:19, Jesus says to Peter, “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (N.K.J.V.). Catholics interpret these words to mean that Jesus made Peter the first pope, but that interpretation is preposterous because the New Testament neither names no such office nor provides any qualifications for it. The better interpretation is that Jesus giving Peter the “keys” of the kingdom of heaven meant that Peter would be the man who would, in a figurative sense, initially open the doors of the church to the world’s three ethnic groups (Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles) so that any individual who believed in Jesus as Savior could enter.

Under this interpretation, each time Peter used his “keys” to open the doors of the church to a different ethnic group, the grand opening was marked by a special event — either a mass public baptizing, a mass receiving of the indwelling Holy Spirit, or both — involving some members of that group. Consider the following:

  • In Acts 2:38-41, Peter opens the church doors for Jews (Acts 2:5), with the event being marked by a group of Jews being publicly baptized and receiving the indwelling Holy Spirit. This was Peter using his “keys” for the first time.
  • In Acts 8:4-13, Philip preaches the gospel to the Samaritans, who were a mixed race. On the one hand, they were Gentiles because their ancestors had been Gentiles the Assyrians had brought in to repopulate Israel’s northern kingdom after Assyria had conquered that kingdom and carried off its inhabitants. On the other hand, those Gentiles had adapted themselves to certain aspects of the Jewish religion and over the ensuing centuries had also intermarried with the Jews. Irregardless of their history, when Philip preached the gospel to the Samaritans many of them believed in Jesus as Savior and submitted to baptism. Interestingly, though, at no point in all that did those believers receive the indwelling Holy Spirit. That didn’t happen until Peter and John traveled from Jerusalem to Samaria and laid hands on them. Only then, with Peter being on the scene, did those Samaritan believers receive the indwelling Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17). This was Peter using his “keys” for the second time.
  • In Acts 10:24-48, Peter travels to Caesarea and preaches Jesus to a group of Gentiles who are gathered in the home of a Gentile named Cornelius. While Peter was in midst of his sermon, the Holy Spirit fell upon those Gentiles, after which Peter baptized them. This was Peter using his “keys” for the third and final time as each of the world’s three ethnic groups (Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles) had now had Peter open the doors of the church to them.

Factor #3: To be baptized in the name of an individual is to submit to that individual and his message. Because the Jews of Jerusalem had been very public in their rejection of Jesus, they needed to be just as public in their submission to Him. By being baptized publicly in Jesus’ name, they dramatically set themselves apart from the unbelieving Jews whom Peter called “this perverse generation” (Acts 2:40, N.K.J.V.). It is also worth mentioning that while every Jew held God and the Holy Spirit in the highest esteem, every Jew certainly did not hold Jesus in high esteem. And they really hated the title “Christ” being added to the name Jesus because that title meant “Messiah.” Perhaps, then, this is why the indwelling Holy Spirit led Peter to command those Jews to be baptized in the name of “Jesus Christ.” It was that name, after all, that drew the starkest line of division between a believing Jew and an unbelieving one.

Factor #4: The book of Acts is the record of a highly transitional time in the history of God’s dealings with people. The church age begins. Judaism wanes. Jews who are accustomed to living under the Old Testament law begin to understand what it is to live under grace. Gentiles come front and center in God getting His work done upon the earth. Because of all this major upheaval, it is unwise to build any doctrine exclusively around any passage from Acts. As evidence of this, consider the following:

  • In Acts 2:38, the order of conversion for Jews is listed as: repentance, water baptism, receiving the Holy Spirit.
  • In Acts 8:14-17, the order of conversation for Samaritans is listed as: belief, water baptism, Peter and John praying for them, receiving the Holy Spirit.
  • In Acts 10:44-48, the order of conversation for Gentiles is listed as: hearing the word (followed, presumably, by believing), receiving the Holy Spirit, water baptism.
  • In Acts 19:1-7, the order of conversation for the disciples of John the Baptist is listed as: receiving Paul’s teaching about the difference between John’s ministry and Jesus’ ministry (followed, presumably, by believing), water baptism, Paul laying his hands on them, receiving the Holy Spirit.

Does this mean, then, that there are four different plans of salvation? No, it doesn’t. It simply means that at the dawn of the church age, God had different ways for how different groups could express their belief in Jesus and their newfound submission to Him.

This entry was posted in Baptism, Belief, Bible Study, Church, Evangelism, God's Work, Salvation, Series: "The Early Church of Jerusalem" and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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