…Now when they heard this they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost…” (Acts 2:37–38).
This brief portion of the book of Acts is one that requires very careful and thoughtful examination. A great deal of controversy has raged around it, and very many serious misconceptions have been drawn from it, so I ask that you fix your attention very particularly upon the text as I seek to expound it.
The Apostle Peter had just preached his wonderful sermon setting forth the life, the death, and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. He had particularly emphasized the fact that the Lord Jesus came to the nation of Israel in accordance with Old Testament prophecy as their Messiah, the One they had been looking for down through the centuries, but they failed to recognize Him when He came. They rejected Him and delivered Him over to the Gentiles to be crucified, but Peter concludes with the triumphant word. “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, who ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
We need to remember that the word “Christ” means “The Anointed” and is the equivalent of the Hebrew term Mashiach or Messiah. Our Lord Jesus is God’s anointed King. Men said, His own people said, “We will not have this Man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14). But God has raised up from the dead the One whom the nation rejected and He has confirmed His Messiahship to Him in resurrection. He has declared Him to be Lord and Messiah.
Now the effect of Peter’s message was tremendous. We are told “there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men.” He was addressing himself not to the ribald crowd that had been in front of Pilate’s judgment hall who cried, “Crucify Him, crucify Him”; but addressing primarily the devout Jews who were awaiting the coming of the Messiah, also a number of proselytes from the nations who had the same sincere expectations. And when these honest men heard Peter’s proclamation, we read, “They were pricked in their heart.” This was the work of the Holy Ghost. He so carried the message home to their hearts that they were deeply stirred.
There was no attempt to deny what Peter said. On the contrary, they accepted the message.
Let us be very clear about that. Having accepted the message we can be very sure of this—they were already born of God. The Apostle Peter tells us in the first chapter of his first Epistle, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever…And this is the Word which by the gospel is preached unto you.”
These people had heard the gospel. They were pricked to the heart, they were deeply exercised; they believed the message, and that implies necessarily they had received divine light and were regenerated. They turned to Peter and the rest of the apostles and cried out in sore distress, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
Now, I want you to notice this. Their cry was not the same as the question of the Philippian jailor of which we read in the 16th chapter of this book. These brethren did not say to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what must I do to be saved?”2 That was not in their mind at all; but they said, “Men and brethren” (and you will see from the very term of address used that they recognized their brotherhood with the men who had been preaching)—”Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
What is involved in that question? I think it is very easy to understand. These, as I said, were devout men. They had been waiting earnestly, believingly, for the Messiah. Peter has just shown them the Messiah has come. What has happened? The nation has rejected God’s anointed King. They have refused Him whom God sent to deliver them. When Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify your King?” they answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” These men were troubled—the King for whom they had been waiting had come; He had been rejected. They expected Him to set up His kingdom; but He had gone away to heaven. God had seated Him on His own throne; but what about this nation He was to reign over? What were they to do? They really meant to ask, “Men and brethren, in view of the fact that our King has already come and our people did not realize it and He has been crucified, rejected, what, then, are we going to do?” Do get the point. It was not a question with them simply of their individual salvation. They were not considering that alone. It was a question as to the fate of the nation to which they belonged. What was to happen? What next? What shall we do? Is there any way the Christ who has been rejected can appear again and the people be given another opportunity? Is there any way by which the sentence can be revoked? What shall we do?
Peter said, “One thing you can do is repent.” Repent! What does that mean? “Repent” means literally a change of mind—a change of mind that involves not only looking at things differently from an intellectual standpoint, but involves complete moral reformation, complete change of attitude, and so Peter says, “Repent, change your attitude.” They showed what their attitude was when Christ was presented to them and they spurned Him. Now he says, “Change your attitude.” Instead of spurning Him, instead of rejecting Him—receive Him! It is true He has gone away from earth, that He is not here to establish His Kingdom, but He still lives and is exalted at God’s right hand. Repent. Right about-face!
Instead of going on as a part of the nation that rejected Him, change your mind, and separate from the apostate group by taking your stand for Christ.
1 Editor’s Note: Acts 2:38 has always been a hotly debated verse. The first time I heard the views expressed in this article was when I read the commentary on Acts by H. A. Ironside that was written in 1943. Reprinted here is the first part of his discussion on Acts 2:37–47, which he entitled “The Pentecostal Response.” Basically, he points out that the Jews who were told to be baptized and to repent were already regenerate. This regeneration took place in v 37. For Ironside, repentance here is not a part of saving faith and clearly comes after the reception of eternal life. In addition, this section is addressed to the nation of Israel as a whole.
2 Emphasis added.