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by Al Maxey

Issue #717 ------- April 3, 2017
We cannot be filled unless we are first
emptied, to make room for what is to come.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

Pondering Peter's Pentecost Promise
Identification and Distribution of a Precious
Gift as Proclaimed by Peter on Pentecost

At the end of the apostle Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost, and in response to a question by some who were touched by his words, we find a statement by Peter that has led to centuries of heated debate and theological conflict and confusion. Almost every word and phrase uttered by Peter, and variously translated in the many versions produced by men, is parsed and perused and picked apart to form countless conflicting convictions as to the divine demands for both salvation and Christian fellowship. Some fundamentalist denominations have almost come to be identified and defined by this passage: "Oh, that's the Acts 2:38 bunch. They think it's the only verse in the Bible." What Peter had to say in his brief statement is indeed of importance, as most affirm, yet over the centuries some have sought to make more of it than was ever intended: using it as a foundation for sectarian doctrines and practices that would devolve into rigid dogmas never envisioned by the apostle who first uttered those words.

Peter was addressing a gathering of Jews (both local and foreign), some of whom, undoubtedly, were likely in some way responsible for or involved in the recent events leading to the execution of Jesus. Peter called them out on this, and explained to them who this Jesus was and what they had done. Many were pierced to the depths of their hearts, convicted of their failure to recognize their Messiah, and they sincerely sought to discover what they could do to make things right with their God. Peter's response was to call them to repentance, and to evidence that repentance. But, he did more than that. He also extended to them the hope of a divine promise, both to them and to all men: the hope of God's acceptance, one that would be evidenced by their reception of "the gift of the Holy Spirit." Notice the words of Peter to this gathering of Jews in Jerusalem: "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off -- for all whom the Lord our God will call" (Acts 2:38-39, NIV).

Over the past 15 years that I have been writing and publishing these Reflections, I have sought to examine in quite some depth almost every aspect of this statement by Peter, for his words have indeed generated an astonishing amount of debate over the centuries. I have sought to examine the relationship between repentance and baptism as it relates to forgiveness, and the importance of each [Reflections #180 - "The Forgiveness Formula: Acts 2:38 - Reviewing Our Response"]. I have looked at "Peter's Problem Preposition: Reflecting on 'EIS' in Acts 2:38" [Reflections #515], over which there has been tremendous debate. I have also done countless articles on baptism (48 of which are listed under the heading "Baptism" on my Topical Index page), as well as a 300 page book on the subject, in which I reflect my own evolution of thought ["Immersed By One Spirit: Rethinking the Purpose and Place of Baptism in NT Theology and Practice"]. I have also written extensively on the Holy Spirit, which is yet another controversial aspect of Peter's statement that day. I would refer the reader to my 11 articles under the heading "Holy Spirit" on the above mentioned Topical Index page. I would especially encourage, in light of this present study, a reading of Reflections #204 ["Indwelling and Empowering: Reflecting on Questions Relating to the Holy Spirit's Interaction with Our Lives"] and Reflections #332 ["A Sanctuary of the Spirit: A Study of the Individual/Corporate Naos of the Indwelling Holy Spirit"]. It would also be beneficial to examine the work of the Spirit in immersing us into an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, which I have discussed in Reflections #353 ["Immersed By One Spirit: Reflecting on 1 Corinthians 12:13"] and Reflections #362 ["Putting On Jesus Christ: An Examination of Romans 13:14 and Galatians 3:27"]. These latter examine the work of the Spirit as it relates to baptism (and whether or not that is a baptism in water ... which, by the way, I do not believe it to be), a topic not often adequately addressed, and certainly not well-understood within many fundamentalist sects.

There are also other questions often raised with respect to the response of Peter as recorded in Acts 2:38-39; questions that I have either not addressed, or only dealt with in passing in previous studies. This was brought to my attention recently by a reader in Ohio who had been perusing my writings for some insight on a discussion he was having with a fellow disciple of Christ. They were interested in two matters: (1) Was "the gift of the Holy Spirit" the Spirit Himself, or was this a reference to believers receiving "spiritual gifts"?, and (2) when Peter said this was promised to those who are "far off," does this mean those far away from Jerusalem, or those who are Gentiles, or those who are far off in the future? These are very interesting questions, but they are not new ones. They have been asked and examined for centuries, and there has been significant debate as to the correct answers. In this issue of Reflections we will take a look at both questions.

The Gift Of The Holy Spirit

Peter told the Jews assembled before him that if they altered the course of their lives with a heartfelt resolve, and if they were further resolved to evidence that newfound faith in their daily lives, they (and their children, and those "afar off") would receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. Some have characterized this "the grand blessing of the new covenant" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1084]. "Much controversy exists," H. Leo Boles rightly noted [A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, p. 47], as to the identity of this divinely promised "gift." Many explanations have been offered over the centuries. A writer for the ultra-conservative Church of Christ publication "Guardian of Truth" (currently known as "Truth Magazine"), at the very beginning of his article on this passage, wrote, "I am fully aware of the diversity over what the statement 'gift of the Holy Spirit' in Acts 2:38 means!" [Elmer Moore, Gift of the Holy Spirit: Acts 2:38, vol. 40, issue 3, Feb. 1, 1996, p. 18]. Such diversity of understanding often leads to heated debate, which is why I especially appreciate the comment by Wayne Jackson some years back in his publication "Christian Courier" -- "The identity of 'the gift of the Holy Spirit,' as that expression is used in Acts 2:38, has long been a matter of interesting discussion among Christians. Good and respected brothers hold differing viewpoints as to the meaning of the terminology employed in this passage. ... There is room for honest disagreement among the Lord's people on this matter, without there being a breach of fellowship" [What is the "Gift of the Holy Spirit" in Acts 2:38? -- Click Here to read this article].

Some argue that the "gift" (singular in Acts 2:38) should actually be "gifts" (plural), for it is believed to be a reference to the "spiritual gifts" bestowed by the Holy Spirit (which gifts may be many and varied). Most scholars point out, however, that this simply does not agree well with the grammatical construction or the wording of the original text. The word used by Peter, as noted, is singular, thus could hardly be reflective of a multitude of diverse gifts (plural). Further, Peter uses the Greek word "dorea," and not "charismata" (which is used in 1 Corinthians 12:4, 9, 28), which seems odd if he were referring to the many spiritual gifts Paul would later list and discuss. Dr. Charles Ellicott notes this difference in word usage is not insignificant [Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 7, p. 14]. Thus, John Wesley (1703-1791), the English clergyman and founder of Methodism, concluded, "The gift of the Holy Ghost does not mean in this place the power of speaking with tongues" [Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]; nor would it refer to any or all of the other miraculous gifts bestowed by the Spirit. Albert Barnes (1798-1870) would later concur: "The gift of the Holy Spirit here does not mean His extraordinary gifts, or the power of working miracles" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword].

Most biblical scholars would agree with the following conclusion by Dr. F. F. Bruce, "We must distinguish the gift of the Spirit from the gifts of the Spirit. The gift of the Spirit is the Spirit Himself, bestowed by the Father through the Messiah; the gifts of the Spirit are those spiritual faculties which the Holy Spirit imparts, 'distributing to each one individually just as He wills' -- 1 Cor. 12:11" [Commentary on the Book of Acts, p. 77]. "The free gift which is promised in verse 38 to those who repent and are baptized is the Holy Spirit Himself" [ibid]. The whole debate centers around whether the phrase "the gift of the Holy Spirit" is a "subjective genitive" or an "objective genitive" (something largely determined by context, for either is grammatically possible -- For a good discussion and illustration of this, see: Reflections #84 - "The Doctrine of Christ: The Use and Abuse of 2 John 9-11"). In simple terms, it is a question of whether the Holy Spirit is the gift or the giver. If the latter, then what is the gift? Some would say the gift (singular) would be forgiveness of sins (mentioned in vs. 38), or salvation (mentioned in vs. 21). This latter is the view of Elmer Moore in the above referenced Guardian of Truth article. He argues that the Holy Spirit cannot possibly be the gift itself, for then "who is the giver?" The answer, of course, is that the Spirit, as "the gift," is given by both Father and Son (as stated by Dr. Bruce at the beginning of this paragraph). "If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!" (Luke 11:13). "The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you" (John 14:26). "It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you" (John 16:7).

There is little disagreement among the majority of scholars that "the Holy Ghost, the gift, was a personal and abiding possession" [Dr. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 2, p. 91]. "The gift consists in the Holy Spirit (genitive of identification)" [Dr. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword]. "God freely, out of pure mercy, sheds forth the Holy Ghost. ... Through the indwelling of the Spirit we are enabled to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit. This application Peter makes very emphatic" [Dr. Paul Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 543]. The Greek grammatical construction of this passage, when viewed contextually, makes it abundantly clear that He (the Holy Spirit) is the gift being imparted to those who have embraced Christ Jesus through a genuine, resolute faith. It should be further noted that the exact same Greek phrase ("the gift of the Holy Spirit") is found in Acts 10:45, which reads, "The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles." Two verses later Peter declares, "They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have" (vs. 47). Notice also Acts 5:32 -- "We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, WHOM God has given to those who obey Him." In 2 Corinthians 5:5, the apostle Paul informs us that God "gave to us the Spirit as a pledge." We could go on, but I believe this makes the point. It is my belief that "the gift of the Holy Spirit" is the Holy Spirit Himself. Interestingly, Wayne Jackson, with whom I differ on a great many things, agrees with me on this issue!! In his above referenced article in the Christian Courier he writes, "It is my conviction, as well as that of numerous highly esteemed brethren, that the Holy Spirit, as a 'gift,' is bestowed upon the obedient believer (Acts 2:38; 5:32; 1 Cor. 6:19), and is an abiding presence in his life. ... It is probably safe to say that most of the scholars within the Restoration heritage have also argued for this interpretation. J. W. McGarvey wrote: 'The expression means the Holy Spirit as a gift, and the reference is to that indwelling of the Holy Spirit by which we bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, and without which we are not of Christ.' Moses Lard commented: 'Certainly the gift of the Spirit is the Spirit itself given.'"

All Who Are Far Off

Another aspect of Peter's Pentecost promise that has generated some confusion is that this "promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off -- for all whom the Lord our God will call" (Acts 2:39, NIV). The final statement especially seems to strongly suggest our God's call extends to ALL peoples, wherever and whenever and whoever! Later Peter would write that our Lord is "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9, KJV). After all, "God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). "Whoever believes in Him is not condemned" (John 3:18). God "now commands all people everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30). Indeed, Peter told the people that Pentecost that what they were beholding was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Joel 2, a text in which we read that the Lord declared, "I will pour out My Spirit on all people. ... And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Joel 2:28, 32). The Gospel message was/is for ALL people, as reflected in our Lord's Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations" (Matthew 28:19). They were to be His witnesses "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Thus, it should have been no surprise to the early disciples that God had always intended to extend His mercy and grace unto ALL peoples; His calling was universal. ALL who heeded His call would be accepted. His atonement was not limited by national borders, nor by gender, nor by social standing.

Would Peter have grasped this truth this early in his public ministry? After all, it was with some degree of reluctance that he was persuaded to go to the home of Cornelius (Acts 10:9ff), and years later he had another lapse with respect to Gentiles that required a rebuke from Paul (Galatians 2:11f). My own personal thinking on this is that the words Peter spoke on Pentecost, with respect to those to whom the promise was extended, specifically: "all who are far off," did indeed have reference to the nations (the Gentiles), but that this truth may not have been fully perceived or appreciated at that time by Peter. Thus, the promise of God was for "you" (the Jews; particularly those present that day), "your children" (the descendents of these people), and "for all who are far off -- all whom the Lord our God will call." Some have suggested this latter group may have been the Jews of the Diaspora. Remember, it was to the Jews of the Dispersion that Peter would later write his first epistle (1 Peter 1:1-2). Is it possible that Peter's personal perception, when speaking those words at Pentecost, and God's actual intent, were not yet "on the same page"? Some have certainly suggested this. John Wesley, in his commentary on this passage, opined, "It is observable St. Peter did not yet understand the very words he spoke." Based on Peter's later reluctance, Albert Barnes wrote, "It is probable that Peter here referred to the Jews who were scattered in other nations; for he does not seem yet to have understood that the gospel was to be preached to the Gentiles" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. "Peter spake as the Spirit gave him utterance, and perhaps did not fully comprehend his own words" [B. W. Johnson, The People's New Testament with Explanatory Notes, p. 424].

Even if Peter himself may have had an inkling as to the intent of God in this statement, it is very likely his listeners did not. "It may well have been that St. Peter's audience only thought of the Jews of the Diaspora, but we can see in his words a wider and deeper meaning" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 2, p. 92]. Some have even sought to implicate Luke (the author of Acts) in this: "Probably this is one of those situations where a narrator like Luke has read into what the speaker said more than was originally there and so implied that the speaker spoke better than he knew. It seems difficult to believe that Peter himself thought beyond the perspective of Jewish remnant theology. Just as he could hardly have visualized anything beyond the next generation, so he could hardly have conceived of anything spatially beyond God's call to a scattered but repentant Jewish remnant. But Luke's desire is to show how an originally Jewish gospel penetrated the Gentile world so extensively that it came to enter 'without hindrance' (cf. Acts 28:28-31) into the capital of the Roman Empire. Very likely, therefore, in recounting Peter's words here in Acts, Luke meant them to be read as having Gentiles in mind, whatever one might argue Peter was thinking of at the time" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 286]. It is certainly true that Peter, and others, struggled with their understanding of God's will in this matter, but there is no doubt whatsoever that God had always intended to extend His call universally (whether His people and prophets and preachers fully grasped that grace or not). There are many times that we, as proclaimers of God's Word, may proclaim truths that we ourselves don't yet fully understand. It is here that the Spirit does some of His best work!! After all, as I heard an old preacher once say with a wink of his eye, "If God can speak truth through a dumb ass (i.e., Numbers 22:28f), He can probably speak through us too!"

Most biblical scholars understand the phrase "all who are far off" to refer to Gentiles. It should also be assumed that this would be for future generations as well, just as Peter indicated the promise was for the Jews "and your children" (which seems to imply a future application, although I doubt Peter personally foresaw this extending for thousands of years; yet, the New Living Translation, in a footnote to this passage, gives an alternate reading as: "and to people far in the future" -- a footnote in the Holman Christian Standard Bible reads: "For distant generations"). We know from our study of the Scriptures, on the other hand, that "Gentiles are described by this phrase both in the Old and New Testaments" [Dr. Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 1, p. 455], thus it is not surprising that these words should be given this understanding by us today. "The expression was current among the Jews in that sense. Even the Rabbinic writers employed it as synonymous with 'the heathen'" [Dr. Horatio B. Hackett, A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, p. 53-54]. The apostle Paul clearly seems to apply this phrase ("who are far off/away") to the Gentiles in Ephesians 2:13, 17 -- stating that they have now been "brought near" by the blood of Christ. Thus, we see in this promise by Peter (whether he fully grasped it or not) "the wide extent of God's promise: to the chosen people, to their posterity, and to an undefined multitude of the heathen whom God shall call unto Himself. The universality of the gospel blessings here appears in germ, although from the lips of one who afterwards sided with the Judaizers. Yet, the progress of Christianity has been marked by the growing appreciation of the part and place of the nations in the kingdom of God" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, p. 66-67]. In short, "there is no limit to the universality of this promise nor to the beauty of its import" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 543].

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Texas:

I don't know if you remember, but I visited with you several years ago there in Alamogordo, New Mexico. We even went out for breakfast together at IHOP on the day I left to come home. Anyway, I am in need of seven copies of your book Down, But Not Out. I bought three of them several years ago, but have loaned them out and haven't seen them since! I sure hated to lose the one with all my notes in it. I have sent the money for these seven books to your PayPal account. The reason for needing so many is that our Men's Book Club is going to read and discuss it. Thank you!

From a Minister in Texas:

I am working on a sermon dealing with the topic of rebaptism. In researching this, I came across your own study of this: Reflections #407 ("A Study of Rebaptism: Taking the Plunge ... Again"). I really enjoyed the history concerning this issue that you brought out. Thank you!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

I noticed in your last readers' comments section that someone thanked you for sending them "all your Reflections on what happens to us when we die." Al, can you provide me with that same list, please? I have your book on this subject (From Ruin to Resurrection), but I just love reading your Reflections. I went to your web site and looked on the Topical Index, but I didn't see a listing for this topic like you have for "Law of Silence" or "Musical Instruments," etc. It would be very helpful for my study of this topic, since, knowing me, once I start looking into something, the next thing that happens is that I end up leading a class on the topic.

From a Reader in Colorado:

In Reflections #716, in the Readers' Reflections, a man thanked you for sending him your articles on what happens to us when we die. I relate with the gentleman, as my wife passed in January 2015 from cancer. Obviously, this has been a very hard time for my children and me. Could you please send me those same Reflections articles on what happens when we die? Thank you!

From a Reader in Georgia:

I just read your article "This Day I Have Begotten Thee" (Reflections #716), and I think you nailed it. When a fetus is "born" into this world, its birth is the mere arrival of something that existed previously (it was already alive in the womb). You quoted John, who said "the Word became flesh." That which existed before as God (John 1:1) came in "the likeness of sinful flesh" (Romans 8:3). I really believe this latest Reflections will help folks grasp and understand this passage. Well done, Al.

From a Reader in California:

I was reading in 1 Peter 5 where Peter directs us to "cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you" (vs. 7, NIV). What got me thinking was this: when we think of "casting" today, we think of the fisherman with a rod-and-reel gracefully tossing a line out into the water. I would imagine that our dear brother Peter, the professional fisherman, would laugh out loud if he saw what we view as "casting." On Sunday, I shared with the congregation that when Peter talked of "casting," he didn't just gracefully, with the flick of a wrist, toss a line (I had my friend get up and demonstrate), rather he heaved (with his full body) the net out into the lake. I then, by way of contrast, demonstrated the full body "casting" done by first century fishermen. I also stressed that the frequency of this casting was of vital importance to these fishermen, for it meant life or death for their families (food, income, etc. --- it was not just recreational or for sport). If he didn't cast forcefully and frequently, his family wouldn't eat. If my friend, on the other hand, cast his line all day and caught nothing, he still enjoyed a good day on the lake or river, so it wasn't that big a deal. Not so with the fishermen Peter had in mind. I walked away with a new appreciation of that verse. I realized that you can't heave a load of care too heavy for God to catch; you can't cast your cares so often that He misses a few. To me, this highlighted the need for us today to understand the context of the verses we read, and to appreciate the author's use of language and the influence of his culture on that language. Al, do you have any other examples where a word is correctly translated into English, but just doesn't convey in English the full force of the original meaning? I'd appreciate your insight ... and I appreciate you!

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