I’m not going to be commenting on every chapter in Acts, but I’ll comment on things as they come up. My first thoughts are on chapter 2 of Acts.
Acts 2:5, 6. “And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone head them speak in his own language.”
Just one note about this: several times throughout Acts (as throughout the gospels), there’s an indication that people being “devout” prepares them to receive the gospel affirmatively; e.g., Simeon in Luke 2:25 is described as “just and devout.” And it’s not just said of Jews: in Acts 10 it’s said of a gentile, Cornelius, who is described as a “devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always” (Acts 10:2). But I’ll write more about that when I get to Acts 10, one of my favorite chapters in Acts.
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:
17 ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God,
That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your young men shall see visions,
Your old men shall dream dreams.
18 And on My menservants and on My maidservants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days;
And they shall prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in heaven above
And signs in the earth beneath:
Blood and fire and vapor of smoke.
20 The sun shall be turned into darkness,
And the moon into blood,
Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord.
21 And it shall come to pass
That whoever calls on the name of the Lord
Shall be saved.’
I find it interesting that this prophecy is said to be being fulfilled at the time. There seems to be a mix of the prophecy being fulfilled literally and figuratively; they literally did receive the Spirit, but the other signs – the sun turned to darkness, the moon into blood – did not occur. One could argue that these are still to come – and it’s generally agreed that the apostles were for a time expecting that Jesus would return immanently, which means some of the things they thought of as occurring “in that day” may still not have happened – but reading it at face value, it sounds like this prophecy is being described as being fulfilled at that time, despite the fact that the sun was not literally extinguished not the moon literally turned into blood. All of which, to me, points away from literalistic readings of any apocalyptic prophecies.
25 For David says concerning Him:
‘I foresaw the Lord always before my face,
For He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken.
26 Therefore my heart rejoiced, and my tongue was glad;
Moreover my flesh also will rest in hope.
27 For You will not leave my soul in Hades,
Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.
28 You have made known to me the ways of life;
You will make me full of joy in Your presence.’
29 “Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, 31 he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. 32 This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses.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.”’
Peter continues Jesus’s own practice of showing that the Psalms refer to Jesus, despite the fact that David wrote them. This points toward a radical re-reading of the Old Testament, since in the Psalms themselves there’s little indication that David is referring to anyone other than himself when, for example, he refers to “the king.”
The other day I was talking to some Jehovah’s Witnesses, who brought up this passage as an indication that no one before Jesus had gone to heaven – that is, that David is asleep in the ground, unconscious. I think that’s contradicted by several other passages – e.g. Samuel appearing to Saul in the spirit, Moses and Elijah appearing at the Lord’s transfiguration, Jesus referring to the God of Abraham and saying, “He is God of the living, and not of the dead” – but this passage does raise some challenges. I think the key here is a.) as verse 31 points out, even Jesus’s flesh did not see corruption, and b.) that in some sense, up to the time of Jesus’s coming, people were held captive in Hades. This was an early belief in the Christian church, seen clearly in the Apostle’s creed, and a little more obscurely in several passages in the New Testament (e.g. Ephesians 4:8-10). I think it is less well known in the New Church that the Writings actually teach the truth of this – that from the time of the fall to the time of the Lord’s coming, people we not fully able to enter heaven; they were kept in “the lower earth,” where they could be protected from evil spirits, but still not able to enter into heaven, because they could not see God clearly enough to love Him or have His life in them. At His coming, He freed them from captivity; in fact, this is the internal sense of the entire book of Exodus (see Arcana Coelestia 7932[a]).
Acts 2:36-39 “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (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.”
The first summary of the gospel in Acts. Interestingly here, the emphasis is not on Jesus sacrificing Himself, but on the fact that the house of Israel had crucified Him – and more than that, that He had been made both Lord and Messiah. I think it’s hard to miss that in giving Him the title “Lord,” Peter is giving Him the name of God, since by tradition the Jews would not pronounce the name “YHWH,” and where the New Testament quotes the Old, “Lord” is always used in place of YHWH or Jehovah. (Most English translations follow suit, writing “Lord” in small capital letters where it’s in place of Jehovah).
So, anyway, the gospel here seems to be: Jesus was crucified and rose again to become Lord and Christ; and the way to receive the gospel is to “repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the Holy Spirit.”
There’s a lot going on here. First of all, there is the need above all else for repentance. This is a constant theme throughout the gospels, acts, epistles, and Revelation. It is one of the primary teachings of the Word.
Secondly, there is the need to be baptized into the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins. There is something about baptism into the name of Jesus Christ that removes sins (and “remission” doesn’t just mean forgiveness but also “taking away”) – but if and only if it is in conjunction with repentance. (I love 1 Peter 3:21, making it clear that it’s not the water of baptism that saves: “There is also an antitype that now saves us – baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God.)”) The other thing I note here is that here, and everywhere else in the book of Acts, baptism is into “the name of the Lord” or “the name of Jesus Christ.” And yet Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize “into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). What’s going on? I think the answer lies in looking a little more closely at what a “name” is. Jesus Christ – the Divine Man – is the name of the Father. What does it mean to baptize into Jesus’s name? Is it the sounds of the word “Jesus”? Because if so, we’ve got it all wrong; in Greek it’s pronounced “Yay-sous,” and in Hebrew it’s the same as the name Joshua, which would have been pronounced, “Ye-hoshua.” But we don’t have a problem with that, because we know that by the name of Jesus, what we really mean is the name as it describes His character, His person. It is the characteristics of Jesus, His life, Himself, that is meant by His name; and since the Father is in Him, and the Holy Spirit is His spirit, to baptize into Jesus is one and the same as baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Finally, there is the promise that after baptism they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The author of Acts (presumable Luke) seems to be referring back here to the promise from the prophecy in Joel quoted in the beginning of this chapter, since he says, “The promise is to you and to your children” – speaking to the Jews specifically – “and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord will call.” It calls back to that passage in Joel which speaks primarily of their sons and daughters, young men and old, menservants and maidservants being filled with the spirit – and closes in saying that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
It’s interesting to me that the Writings don’t speak about the Holy Spirit more than they do, despite the fact that it’s such a huge emphasis in the New Testament, in particular in Acts and the epistles. I think part of the reason for this is the way that people have historically abused the teachings of the Holy Spirit, claiming that they spoke from the Spirit and that therefore their words were Divine. But I recently re-read the chapter in True Christian Religion on the Holy Spirit, and it makes a lot more sense now that I have some of the context from the epistles. In simple terms, the Holy Spirit is God’s presence with us now, and specifically His truth with us (“the Spirit of truth that leads into all truth” promised in John 16:13). Lots more thoughts, but I’ll share them as I come across some more specific teachings about the Spirit.
Acts 2:40 “And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverted generation.”
An interesting idea here of salvation (and I wish I remembered enough Greek to say a little more about “be saved,” which is σωθητε, an active verb rather than passive; the KJV has “save yourselves”). I’d probably translate “from” as “away from” or “out of” – the idea being that they are being called to separate themselves from their evil generation, and I think more spiritually, to step out of the evilness of that generation. Salvation as it’s used here does not seem to primarily refer to eventually going to heaven, but to being saved now from the evil they’ve been living in.
Acts 2:44-47 Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, (45) and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. (46) So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, (47) praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
I just love this description of the lifestyle of the early Christians; I don’t know that we’re called to emulate it exactly, but I love the attitude of “what’s mine is yours,” and the attitude that we have an obligation to support each other. The “gladness and simplicity of heart” is particularly appealing, too. I want this.