Opening The Old Testament
A Famous and Dangerous Sermon: Reflections on Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Peter begins by saying to the assembled Jewish authorities that Jesus was "attested to you by God" (Acts 2:22). The Greek verb, translated in the NRSV "attest," can also mean "display" or "appoint." Peter states here quite directly that the coming of Jesus was nothing less than God's determined act, both to show Jesus as a prophet of Israel, but also to demonstrate through his mighty acts that he was far more than prophet. He was in fact God's Messiah. Luke has already made such a demonstration of Jesus' messianic status in his very first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth (Lk. 4). There he reads the clearly messianic passage from Isaiah 61 and claims that the text has "today been fulfilled in their hearing." The assembled congregation welcomes such golden promises from a local boy made good, but after Jesus goes on to accuse the hearers of misreading their own tradition about to whom the message should be given, the crowd turns ugly and tries to kill Jesus by hurling him off a nearby cliff. That threat, Peter says next, has now been completed by the Jewish authorities who are listening to him in Jerusalem.
Acts 2:23 is fairly crammed with dangerous language, a language that has caused no end of horrors in the world until our own day. "This man, who was delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed by crucifixion through the hands of lawless people." Peter first claims that the entire scenario of Jesus' passion, his false arrest, his torture, his mockery, his agonizing death, were all the exact plan of God. This idea has lead theologians of all stripes a merry chase down through the ages. If it is not a statement of predestination, it is hard to imagine what such a statement might look like. To that Peter adds the direct accusation that "you killed (him) by crucifixion." Peter acts here as judge and jury, shouting to the assembled Jewish leaders that they are without doubt the murderers of Christ, their own Messiah. Exactly how we are to hear the clause that follows: "through the hands of lawless people" is not quite clear, but the murder charge is not undercut by the clause in any way. The Jews are murderers!
Of course, there is a dark confusion here. If God had planned this from the beginning, how then could the Jews be held fully accountable for the death? Were they not merely puppets in the hands of the master puppeteer of the heavens? I hardly have time to unpack that conundrum in this brief article, but it is a huge issue that has plagued Christian theology for centuries.
Peter goes on to quote several Hebrew Bible sources to "prove" that the Jewish authorities should have known that Jesus was Messiah; their own texts, he says, make that fact plain. He assumes David is the author of the Psalms, hence the great David himself, the most important of all Israel's kings, spoke of Jesus at Psalm 15:8-11, which Peter quotes exactly from the Septuagint translation of Psalm 15 at Acts 2:25-28. Then Peter reminds them that David is dead; even as great as he was, he died; we can all see his tomb today (Acts 2:29). Yet, in 2 Samuel 7, God had promised to "put one of his (David's) descendants on the throne of Israel" (Acts 2:30). Then Psalm 131:11 is quoted to suggest that David was speaking of the resurrection of the Messiah, a resurrection that has now happened to Jesus with the power of God. Peter concludes this part of the sermon by a notation of Psalm 109:1: "The Lord (God) said to my Lord (Jesus in Peter's reading), 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.'"
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.