Associate Editorial

The "Gift" and the "Promise"
Acts 2:38-39

"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. "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'" (Acts 2:38-39).

I have often heard Acts 2:38 referred to as "our passage," meaning that this verse of scripture is one that is uniquely accepted and applied by members of the church of Christ. I am not certain that I would argue with that premise, as most denominationalists do not teach the truth on the passage, holding to the premise that remission of sins precedes baptism and that eternal security is preserved at the point of faith that Jesus is Lord. I remember one Sunday morning while living in Houston, Texas, watching a young Baptist preacher on television, named Phil Arms. I regularly watched Arms as he was a really fine preacher, one of the best moralist sermonizers I had ever heard come out of Protestant Denominationalism. On this particular Sunday morning, Arms did a verse by verse exegesis of Acts 2. It was quick, but thorough. He did it over two Sunday morning half hour program segments. I was impressed, to say the least. He preached the truth on the Holy Spirit baptism of the twelve, which really surprised me. He had a good grasp of the chapter as recording the beginning of the church age.

Intellectual dishonesty, however, along with denominational bias, finally raised their ugly and spiritually destructive heads. I have never witnessed such a blatant disregard for obvious truth as when he got to verse 38. He simply skipped it! It was like Acts 2:38 did not exist in his Bible. He never read it. He never referred to it. He never uttered the word baptism in his entire discourse. I anticipated the false teaching on the Greek "eis" which usually is the tactic of Calvinists, but Phil Arms just observed the Passover on that verse and pretended like it was not even there.

So, maybe Acts 2:38 is "our passage." Let's examine what it teaches. It seems to be the fad these days to take the simple and to make it complex. I have heard in recent years that hermeneutics demands that we see this verse, not as a command to be obeyed, but rather as an example of a command that the people who received the command were to obey. Why go there? I never understood that, except as an intellectual exercise by someone a lot smarter than I am. I just accept what the text says. If I am guilty of sin, the way to receive the remission of those sins is to repent and be baptized. Seems simple enough to me.

The setting of any passage that presents a directive to be obeyed must be viewed in its context or its setting. In Acts 2, the twelve Apostles are found in Jerusalem gathered there worshipping God on the Holy Feast Day known as Pentecost. Pentecost was observed on the day after the seventh Sabbath after Passover, (fifty days after Passover) thus the name "Pente" (fifty) cost. It was on this day that God fulfilled the promise Jesus made to the twelve concerning their own power to spread the gospel after Jesus was gone. "However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come" (John 16:13). That Spirit came, as recorded in the beginning of Acts 2. On the day of the Lord's ascension, Jesus repeated the promise. "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Jesus promised the apostles that they would do a great work, and that they would have the divine power to carry out that work. The power would come with the endowment of the Holy Spirit. It happened just that way. "And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4). All of this caused quite an uproar in the city and drew an interested crowd. They were confused and amazed. They marveled and were perplexed. Some mocked and accused. In all of this confusion, Peter took advantage of the opportunity to use the keys of the kingdom of Heaven which he had been promised and now possessed (Matthew 16:18-19). He preached the gospel to a massive crowd of people. I am persuaded that the crowd was of such a nature that before it was all said and done, all twelve of the apostles were working the crowd and speaking in various tongues to communicate with the great variety of nationalities present.

At a vital point in Peter's presentation, he proclaimed the deity of Jesus. "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36). The gathered multitude was stunned at this revelation and condemnation, and the record says the news pierced their very hearts (Acts 2:37). They were pierced to the point that they asked Peter and the rest of the Apostles what to do about this pickle in which they found themselves. And quite a pickle it was. As Jews, they were waiting for the Christ. That was basic to their very identity as a people. When they finally became convinced that not only had he come to them, but that they had murdered Him, they were perplexed, confused and scared. "What shall we do?" they asked.

It is at this point that the purpose of this article comes into play. Here we had a massive throng of people. They were scared, perplexed, marveling at what was going on around them. They could hardly believe their ears that they were hearing all this truth in their own native tongue. The truth was astounding enough, but for Galilean fishermen to be speaking their various native languages, well, that was just too much. At this point in the narrative, some well meaning brethren want to make this story difficult and complex. When the Jews were asked what to do to save their necks, we are told by some today that Peter entered into a discussion with them of the ancient Abrahamic promise and how it was that they were finally going to be the ones to fulfill it. Or, we are told, that Peter began a discussion of how the Holy Spirit was going to indwell them, not in the same way as He was indwelling the Apostles, not in the "miraculous measure," but in a very special way that was to provide them with all kinds of warm fuzzies to help them over the difficulties of life. That just is not what I read.

I see a massive crowd of people wanting to save their necks and they ask a question, "What shall we do?" Peter simply answers the question. There are two things to do. There are two things these people and all who are like them must do. Repent and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. That was the simple answer to a simple question. How would that help them? Baptism, he explains, is for the remission of sins. That is why they had to do more than just believe and confess or even change their mind about sin. They had to do something to get rid of the sin in their account books. That sin had to be blotted out. It had to be dismissed. Peter assures them it would be. Now, what about that last part of the verse, verse 38? "And" is a conjunction. It joins two parts. Both parts are equal in rank, grammatically. If Jews understood anything at all about law, especially the law of God, it was that virtually every sin, and every violation of the 10 Commandments, to be sure, was a capital crime. They had just learned the terms of their forgiveness, and in the same breath, Peter explains to them that forgiveness, remission, was not just a temporary atonement, but this remission also carried with it the promise of life. "And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Peter affirms in this promise that if these people would do as they were told, that remission of their sins would be forthcoming. This forgiveness would allow them to continue living, not at the whim of the priest or the Romans, but this gift of life was the gift of the Holy Spirit of God. The very Spirit of God who empowered these apostles to speak this grand, new, marvelous, amazing truth, would also provide obedient believers life everlasting. After all, Jesus had commissioned these twelve men to say, "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:16). The very purpose for Jesus coming to the earth had been proclaimed to Joseph, Mary's betrothed husband. "And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). It had been proclaimed by the Lord's own mouth at His visitation of the little man, Zacchaeus, "for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10). The issue of the mission of the Christ was salvation! Not indwelling, not fulfillment. Sinners needed to be saved! Peter proclaimed how it could and would happen. It is simple. The sinners asked a question. Peter and the rest of the Apostles answered it. Is that hard?

Devoted students of the Book of Acts realize that the Apostles had very little ingenuity in their approach to preaching. These poor guys had only one outline. It had six points: 1) Jesus Christ is the Son of God; 2) God sent Him to the earth; 3) The Jews killed Him 4) God raised Him from the dead; 5) The apostles were witnesses to the resurrection; and 6) Faith in these facts must move one to obey certain commands in order to benefit from His death. Every place the apostles went, they preached the same sermon. People either believed it and obeyed it or they refused to believe and obey. In this way we see that the initial commands of Acts 2:38 are universally applicable.

What about the promise? Verse 39 speaks to a "promise". "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" (Acts 2:39). Again, in a very practical, to the point way, Peter is assuring these people that life eternal is the ultimate goal now of life on this earth. Under the Mosaic system, the Law was very specific, especially in regard to people's attitude toward God. "You shall not bow down to them nor serve them {"carved images" vs. 8}. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me" (Deuteronomy 5:9). Instead of visiting the iniquity of the murderers of the Messiah upon the children to the third and fourth generations, Peter affirms that the promise which he had just made to those murderers concerning remission of sins and salvation was applicable and available not only to them, but to their children and their grand children and throughout all generations, "as many as the Lord our God shall call."

Why do we need to make "our passage" difficult? Sinners asked a question about how to be free from their guilt. Peter and the others answered the question, simply and directly. It was the answer to the question they asked. It was the answer to what they wanted to know and needed to know. The answer was not theologically "heavy." It was not complicated. It did not go off into areas of which these original recipients were either ignorant or apathetic. When a murderer wants to save himself from sure capital punishment, he is neither interested in ancestry nor ancient promises. He wants to know about the here and now.

Consider the prison guard from Philippi. He was ready to commit suicide when he asked, "What must I do to be saved?" The concept of being saved carries with it both the idea of immediate relief and long term reprise. Paul and Silas told him to believe on the Lord. Some say that Paul did not answer the jailer's question. He was asking a physical question and they supplied him with a spiritual answer. Either way, the situation of pending death was defused. That was essential. That is what the jailer wanted. What then happened satisfied his real need of not only life, but eternal life. The record tells us, "Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house" (Acts 16:32). Paul and Silas answered all of his questions and provided all that his family needed to know about true life free from sin.

The Bible contains within its pages a simple plan. It is a plan for fallen man to recapture his glorious state in God's presence. It is the way for man to be saved. I believe with all my heart that it is an understandable plan. It was revealed by simple people to simple people. The apostles, prophets, and preachers who first delivered the message to the common folk of the first century never made it hard when it could be said easy. We need to do the same. Peter certainly affirmed that some of Paul's writing were hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). If it is hard, do it hard, but if it is easy do it easy. But whether it is hard or easy, we have to find a way to get it done. The gospel is "do"-able.

The gift -- Peter preached salvation to the people who murdered the Christ. He preached to them relief from their guilt. That is what they wanted and that is what they needed. They were totally unaware and unconcerned about the Holy Spirit and His workings within the lives of Christians. An indwelling divine Spirit was a foreign concept to these blood stained Jews. They would come to learn a great deal more about the Holy Spirit later. They wanted and received what the Holy Spirit GAVE, His GIFT.

The promise -- A simple promise. Do what the Lord commands and he offers remission of sins, not atonement, but full remission. One of my favorite songs, in the third verse, says this: "My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought, My sin, not in part, but the whole, Is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul. It is Well with My Soul." I am the beneficiary of the promise of Acts 2:39. I am "afar off". I am some 2,000 years departed from that great Day of Pentecost when twelve uneducated men turned the city of Jerusalem upside down by preaching the good news of a resurrected Savior. These twelve men made a promise to a believing people who had heard the truth about Jesus. That promise was the gift of life, eternal life, the gift of the very Holy Spirit of God. It was for them, and it is for you. Accept the gift and receive the promise is our prayer for every reader.

E-mail Larry Fain

return to February index

Return to Watchman front page