Acts 2:37-39: “What Shall We Do?”

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 the , “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.” 

These verses record the response of the crowd to Peter’s impassioned explanation of what had happened earlier with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as well as his declaration that the One whom they had crucified was not a criminal, but was in fact their Messiah.

These verses are among some of the most well-known verses in Scripture.  But do they really teach what is so commonly said of them?

For example, I’ve heard a preacher tell his audience, “Repent, every one of you, and be baptized for the remission of sins.”  I was in a Bible study at a home and a young woman was baptized in the pool in the backyard.  When the ceremony was over, the teacher said that the young woman’s sins were at the bottom of that pool.  I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate the moment because my first thought was, “Boy, I don’t want to go into that water!”  It’s not really funny.

In the first place, this is not a general command for all audiences and all time.  Peter never repeated it in his preaching.  In fact, in his next recorded preaching, he told his audience, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out,” Acts 3:19.  In that lengthy record, there isn’t one reference to baptism.  And Paul one time said, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius,… For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, 1 Corinthians 1:14, 17.  This seems a strange statement if baptism is essential to salvation.

The question asked by these men is not, “What must we do (to be saved)?” but, “In regard to our guilt with regard to the crucifixion of Christ, what is to be done?”  It is a question in a specific historical context.  Messiah had been rejected by the nation, as represented by the high priest and other officials who had orchestrated His arrest and death.  Peter is saying that these men must reject the counsel of the nation and receive this One as their Lord and Christ.

As far as baptism goes, it is indeed important.  After all, it was commanded by our Lord, Matthew 28:19.  But Peter himself fixes its place regarding salvation once and for all, in Acts 10 and the account of the conversion of Cornelius the centurion.  Baptism is to be the believer’s “profession of faith,” not going forward or raising the hand or any of the many other things men have dreamed up.

Without getting into all of Acts 10, we read in v. 44, While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word.  Peter never got to “finish”.  He never got to give an altar call or an invitation.  He never got to ask if they would like to “accept Jesus,” the things we think necessary in our time.  But that they were saved was beyond doubt, for they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God, v. 46a.

Then Peter answered, “Can any forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  vs. 46b-47 (emphasis added).

Unless we are to believe that lost people can receive the Holy Spirit, it seems to me that this verse forever puts to rest the idea that people must be baptized in order to be saved.

The other teaching that is used from these verses is found in v. 39, where Peter said, “For the promise is to you and to your children….”  Thus, we are told that just as children were included in the blessings of the Old Covenant – the Mosaic law and circumcision – so they are included in the blessing of the New Covenant – and infant baptism.

This view doesn’t recognize the differences in those two covenants.  Without going into great deal – we covered this in our series on infant baptism – the Mosaic Covenant, or the Law, was national and corporate.  The individual Israelite did indeed have a responsibility to obey Moses, but he had a “relationship” with God simply because he was a member of the nation.  Circumcision was the sign of that relationship, but had nothing whatever to do with the man’s spiritual condition.  Under the New Covenant, the relationship is individual and personal.  It has nothing to do with which “nation” you belong to, your heritage or your parents, and everything to do with your spiritual condition.  It was to one who probably had everything the Old Covenant had to offer, if we can put it like that, to whom our Lord said, “You must be born again.”

Beyond that, v. 39 itself has information about this:  “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as our Lord shall call.”  If we are to baptize our infants on the basis of this verse, then what are we to do with those who are “afar off.”  Are we to baptize them, as well?

You see the difficulty.  It seems to me from Ephesians 2:11-13, that Peter is including both Jews – “you and your children” – and Gentiles – those who are “afar off” – in the provision and possibility of “the promise.”  The early church, which was composed of Jews, had a hard time accepting the “availability” of the Gospel message.  After all, Israel had been the only nation God had chosen for Himself.  If one came to God, he had to do it through Israel.  It had been like this for centuries.  “Gentiles” were cursed and Israel had gotten into trouble more than once for being friendly with them.  It was a radical and unheard-idea for a Jew of that time that Gentiles could be blessed as “Gentiles”.

Besides, Peter himself continues with a qualification in this verse – “even as many as the Lord will call.”  In other words, those who have been saved.  They and they alone are the Scriptural and proper candidates for baptism.

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“Beginning at Jerusalem”: Preparation, part 1.

Scripture references:  Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:14-20; Luke 24:36-53; John 20:19-23; Acts 1:9.

When we get into the study of individual passages in Acts, we’ll return to printing them at the beginning of each post.  For now, we trust you will read the references yourself.  Remember, our attitude must always be, What does the Scripture say? Romans 4:3.

Introduction:  We cannot divorce the Book of Acts from what goes before it.  As we noted in our first post, Pentecost happened less than 2 months after what seemed to be the absolute crushing of the disciples’ hopes and expectations, cf. Luke 24:17-21.  We believe it will be helpful to see how the Lord instructed His disciples in the days between His resurrection and His ascension.  We have 5 records of such times.  Each record seems to have a different emphasis, so we’re going to look at each one of them separately over the next two or three posts.

1. Matthew 28:16-20, The Master’s Command.

The Master’s Authority.  Verse 18b reads literally, “has been given to Me all authority (“exousia,” the right to command, jurisdiction) in heaven and on earth.”  This emphasizes that it is the Lord Who has the authority.  Nowhere in Scripture is it said that He’s given or transferred it to anyone or anything else.  There is no “head of the church” on this world.

In some circles, we hear a lot about “church authority.”  I spent some time among folks like this in earlier days, and this seemed to be their whole thing.  If something wasn’t done under “church authority,” it couldn’t have been of the Lord.  Now, I’ll admit, I have some reservations about “para-church” organizations.  I know the rationale is that such organizations can do more than the local church, and that may be true, but it seems to me that the churches in Acts did pretty well without mission boards, Bible colleges or denominational hierarchies.  The problem with such things is that they take time, talent and money from the local church to support themselves.  I may be wrong, but it could be that if we’d quit depending on human wisdom and ingenuity and do things the way the Lord laid them out, we might be surprised at the results.

So what did the Lord “lay out” for His church?

The Church’s Ministry.  The church is to “disciple” all nations…..  We seem to understand that this simply means “to evangelize” all nations.  And, certainly, that’s where it starts.  The problem, it seems to me, is that is also where it ends.  But the word translated “disciple” means “student,” “learner”.   Cf. Matthew 11:28-30.  This doesn’t mean that every convert has to go to “Bible College,” but rather that, through the local church, they are to be taught by word and example what it means to be a Christian.

I admit.  Just a few month after I was converted, I left for Bible college.  And I’m thankful for that experience.  If nothing else, it indirectly led to the young woman I married nearly 47 years ago.  But there were many other things, as well.  But I was “adrift” in a manner, as well.  There were 800 students in the freshman class.  There was no one there to “mentor,” to “disciple” me, a young believer.  The NT pattern is that the older believers in the church teach the younger.  And there is the “gift” of pastor-teacher.  The man who stands behind the pulpit has an obligation which affects eternity as he teaches and preaches.  Spurgeon said that the idea of standing before the thousands in his church crushed him into the dust.  In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul wrote to Timothy, And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others.  I don’t know what would have happened if I had stayed under the ministry of that godly elderly pastor – at least, he seemed elderly to me at the time.  

According to our text, “discipling” has three parts:

1. baptizing, v.19  Among other things, New Testament baptism is an identifying of believing sinners with their Savior, even as He was identified with them, Isaiah 53:12; Matthew 3:5, 6, 13-15.  I know there’s a lot of teaching about baptism and its saving power, etc., and it’s not really our purpose to get into all that here.  But baptism is supposed to be an evidence of our salvation and our willingness to obey our Savior.  It was never intended to be the means of being saved.

2. teaching, v. 20a.   This isn’t to be just some theoretical or academic exercise.  I have nothing against “books,” but the problem I see with most of our instruction is that it’s out of books, which are what some man says about the Bible.  These may be useful, but how much better would it be if we simply let Scripture speak for itself? Further, it’s to be some teaching that relates to life.  We do need to know about “doctrine,” what we think about God affects how we think about everything else.  But what does it say about marriage, about the family, about how I relate to God and to others?  And is this life “all there is”?

I admit, the Bible has a lot to say.  It takes a while to get around it – something I think isn’t possible in this life.  After all, Ephesians 2:7 tells us that its going to take God Himself the ages to come to show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  This means in no way that He will have difficulty in this, just that we’ll never get to the end of it.  There used to be a TV show that promised “a world of never-ending wonder.”  This is it. 

3. understanding, v. 20b.  This is about our understanding.  It’s simply to remind us that it is the Lord with whom we have to do and not simply with church or some religious organization.  It’s not about “us” as all.  But it’s also an encouragement – He’s always with us.  The task we’ve been given is truly a “Mission Impossible.”  I know we don’t really think that:  it’s just a matter of the right approach or the right atmosphere or the right something else, but it’s not.  As well go to a cemetery and tell the people there to live.  (If you’ve recently lost a loved one, I’m truly sorry.  I don’t mean to add to your sorrow.)  Especially with the lost, we’re talking to people who are spiritually dead and at enmity with God, Ephesians 2:1-3; Romans 8:7.  Even with believers, we’re dealing with people who are involved in many things which make it hard sometimes to concentrate on what really matters.  But He is with us to strengthen and encourage us. The battle truly is the Lord’s, 1 Samuel 17:47.

2. Mark 16:14-20, The Manifestation Commending the Churches.

I know there is a lot of discussion over the authorship of these verses.  We’ re not going to get into all that.  It’s enough for our purposes that they don’t disagree with the apparent intent of this Gospel and there are many who distort them to their own discredit and to the discredit of the Word of God.

There is a three-fold “manifestation,” if you will, in these verses.

1. through “preaching,” v. 15.  Again, the thought of Matthew 28:18-20 in intensive preaching of the Gospel, not just in “evangelism,” but in discipling.  Evangelism is only the start.

2. through “profession,” v. 16.  Some cults us this verse to “prove” their doctrine of salvation through baptism.  That’s not what it and the other NT verses about baptism are talking about.

Baptism is important, but not because that’s how we’re saved.  Remember, baptism is to be an identification with our Lord; we’re trusting Him with our souls.  In Matthew, He commanded believers to be baptized.  It’s the first step in the Christian life.  Many “believe” who “draw back to perdition,” Hebrews 10:38, 39; John 2:23-25.  There’s much more that could be said about this.  We did so in our study in Hebrews, but for now, baptism is one evidence, if properly done, that a person has truly believed.

This verse also goes against the Reformed view of infant baptism:  “The baptism [of an infant] becomes a seal of the blessing which rightfully may be expected when in later years the child confirms his baptism by an act of personal faith.  Dwight Hervey Small, The Biblical Basis for Infant Baptism, p. 47, emphasis added.)  According to the Lord and the subsequent teaching of Scripture, baptism is the confirmation of faith, and not the other way around!  Baptism is our profession of faith.

3. through “proof,” v. 18.  This is the verse which causes most of the controversy, as some with more zeal than knowledge handle poisonous snakes and drink strychnine as “proof” of their “faith.”  This is not what the Lord meant.

Notice that these signs “follow” believers; they aren’t to be “sought out” by them or deliberately performed as “proof.”  Cf. Acts 28:3-6 and Paul’s experience along this line.

The teaching seems to me to be that there will be evidence that the message preached by the disciples is not just another religious message.  There were plenty of those in the Lord’s day and there are plenty of those in our day.  The Book of Acts abounds in miracles done to substantiate the message of the early church.  However, notice Acts 14:3; 19:11 and others.  These miracles were not “automatic.”  See also 2 Corinthians 12:12, where Paul speaks of the signs of an apostle. Evidently, miracles (and tongues and other manifestations of the Spirit) were apostolic only, and were not passed on by them.

Verse 20 seems to help our understanding.  If you notice, the word “them” is in italics, as not being in the original language, but added by the translators.  If we leave it out, the verse reads like this:  And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.  Amen.  (emphasis added). There was abundant evidence of a supernatural power behind the message.  Now, we believe that the age of supernatural miracles has passed, but we also believe that when the Word is preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, it is evident, and the conversion of a sinner is as dramatic as any miracle in the New Testament.