I confess that, when I sat down to study this passage, I was more intrigued by what was left out of the lectionary selection than I was by that selected. Our text includes the narrative introduction of Peter’s speech (14a) before immediately jumping 8 verses to the speech’s middle. Why, I wonder, does our text leave out Peter’s “defense” against the charge, from some in the Jerusalem Pentecost crowd, of the disciples’ drunkenness? Why also, does the selection leave off so suddenly at v32? “…all of us are witnesses” is a nice conclusion from the standpoint of rhetoric, but v33 begins with a participial phrase that clearly continues the line of Peter’s exposition. Such editorial decisions have consequences. Readers get dropped into Peter’s speech, in media res, just as he makes a turn from defense to offense. Something of the classic legal structure of his argument is lost to us, then. On the back end, we lose the chief theological flourish of Peter’s presentation of the gospel. Jesus has not only been raised up, but he has been exalted to God’s right hand and has received the promised Holy Spirit, which he has then poured out upon the disciples—resulting in the behavior that had been misinterpreted as drunkenness.
These editorial decisions might be made more understandable in light of the calendar. We read these texts on the second Sunday of Easter. If we choose to associate Jesus’s exaltation with his ascension, rather than with his resurrection, then we might perhaps understand why our reading is cut off at v32. We have yet to arrive there in our liturgical march through the drama of Jesus’s earthly ministry. As to why v14b-21 have been left out, I can only guess at a desire to keep a tight focus on Peter’s presentation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. (A focus I have hitherto done a poor job of observing).
Turning our attention to the lectionary text, we immediately notice that it is a summary of the gospel. Jesus’s humanity and his divinity are affirmed (in an understandably less-than-systematic fashion). His death and resurrection are presented succinctly. Peter then quotes at length from the Septuagint’s Psalm 15:8-11, citing David as a prophetic authority. The use of the Psalm, here, is an early example of Christian homiletics, making use of Jewish scripture in the presentation of the gospel of Jesus. While other commentators are better equipped to guide us through the details of Peter’s exegetical and hermeneutical moves, a few notable features of our text are worth mentioning.
First, it must be mentioned that this text has a place in the long and shameful history of Christian violence against Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. While few today would imagine preaching this text in an explicitly anti-Semitic fashion, we must take care to pay attention to the implicit lines of “us” and “them” that are drawn as we place ourselves within a text. Long familiarity with scripture often leads to Christians engaging the text “from the inside,” shifting our perspectives to align with the “the right side” of each passage or story. This can happen all to easily with this text, reading Peter’s attack on the Jews as if it does not include us. But this would cause us to miss a real opportunity to allow this text, read from within the broad sweep of scripture, to speak powerfully to us. Peter stands, as a representative of the eleven disciples, and addresses the Jews, hanging about their necks the crucifixion and death of Jesus, despite his being “a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonder, and signs…” (v22). Peter, who himself wears no “white hat” in the Passion narrative, now presents to the Jews their failure to recognize Jesus for who he is. And he presents arguments from the Jews’ own scriptures, in support. The response, narrated in v37-42, is one of faith in “this Jesus whom you crucified” as “Lord and Messiah.” (v36). While we today rightly recognize that we are not Jews (for to claim to be so would be to perpetuate a harmful and insulting supersessionism), we ought to read this passage as if it is directed at us. We, too, fail to recognize Jesus, whom God continues to attest to us in deeds of power, wonders, and signs as his ministry, by his Spirit, continues. We, too, despite the teaching of our scriptures, continue to misunderstand and misrepresent God in the midst of his ongoing work in creation. Such a damning message is not hopeless abuse. Like Peter’s address to the Jews, this text invites us also into the acceptance of—and faith in—the new thing God is doing in Christ, by his Spirit.
Second, Peter here is “reading” Christ through the “lens” of David. Both by making use of a psalm ascribed to David, and by comparing the life (and death) of David—so central to Jewish identity—to the life (and death and resurrection) of Jesus. Doing this serves not only to ground the gospel proclamation in the literature and history of the Jewish people, but it makes a claim of Jesus’s superiority—in life, in death, and, we can infer, in kingship. Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s promise to David and his line.
Finally, we ought to pay attention to the closing sentence of our passage, for it provides a beautifully succinct description of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” (v32) I think this verse serves (at least) two purposes. First, it identifies the disciples who stand with Peter as those who have seen the risen Christ, and now proclaim the good news of his resurrection. These persons are naming themselves as guarantors of the veracity of Peter’s incredible claim (“this Jesus God raised up”). Second, we ought to notice the word translated “witnesses.” μάρτυρες (martures) is the Greek word from which we get “martyr.” We see here in the second chapter of Acts a haunting foreshadowing of the end for many of those eleven disciples who stand proclaiming the resurrection of the crucified Jesus—and a powerful promise of what is means to join them in witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus. May the words of David spring forth from our mouths as well: “therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope.” Amen.