And Peter said to them, “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.” – Acts 2:38 (ESV)
Peter followed up this call for repentance and subsequent baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit by saying “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord or God calls to Himself” (2:39). His insistence on repentance and baptism followed his statement, about Jesus, “that God has made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus Whom you crucified” (2:36b). This caused his hearers to be “cut to the heart” (2:37b). What does all of this mean? What is being implied?
The call for repentance and baptism, hearkens back to the initial words that we hear from both John the Baptist and Jesus. In Matthew, John says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2). He adds, “I baptize you with water for repentance” (3:11a), adding that Jesus will also baptize, but “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (3:11c). In Mark, the first words that we hear from Jesus are “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (1:15). The use of “gospel” was closely connected with “kingdom” in that day, because “gospel” had to do with proclamations concerning the Caesar. Seeing these things about John and Jesus, it should not be surprising to us to hear Peter speaking in this way in what is sometimes referred to as the first “Christian sermon.” Repentance and baptism and forgiveness would be familiar themes. However, we must be careful to not project our own, modern ideas on to Peter’s words, but to carefully understand what they meant in context, so as to be able to accurately comprehend and apply them to our lives and work in this day.
Peter’s purposeful statement about Jesus being made both Lord and Christ would have provided the foundation for his hearers to understand the point that he was making. By this, he was making it clear that Jesus was, in fact, the anointed One that had been sent by Israel’s God to usher in and inaugurate the promised kingdom. He was both Lord and Christ, that is, He was Lord of all, having faithfully fulfilled the role of Israel’s Messiah (the Christ), and now ruler of all things, as was the understood intention and ultimate destiny of that Messiah. This then leads to the statement about repentance, and its connection to John and Jesus. The call to repentance was not a call to repent from poor or immoral behavior. Such a call was not going to get either John or Jesus killed. The call to repentance was for Israel to repent from the way it had been acting, specifically in abrogation of its role to be a light to the nations, and instead, replacing that role with an almost constantly acted upon revolutionary fervor to drive the oppressive Gentiles from their land. Israel had kept itself in strict isolation from the Gentiles, refusing to meet God’s intention for them, especially as we see that intention in the life and ministry of Jesus, as we constantly find Him in fellowship with Gentiles and with those that were looked down upon by Israel.
In accordance with this, we must bear in mind that forgiveness of sins, in that day, was connected, not with personal piety and holiness, but to the much larger context of exile from the promises of God. Forgiveness of sins, for a member of the nation of Israel in the first century, meant the forgiveness of God that would bring about a return to the land of promise and an end to the exile that was begun by the Babylonian conquest of Judah, and as they saw it, still continuing to that day with the Roman domination of the land of their forefathers. Forgiveness of sins referred to the establishment of the kingdom of Israel, which was the kingdom of God, being brought into that land of covenant, with exile being brought to an end. This is how we ought to understand forgiveness of sins as well. Connected to Messianic expectations of the day, this establishment of the kingdom of God meant that Israel, or God’s covenant people, were now going to be established as a kingdom that ruled over all nations, with Israel’s Messiah as its King, with this going forth as the message of the Gospel.
Peter seizes upon all of this understanding, ties it together with the words and actions of Jesus, and tells the people that this has indeed taken place. They simply needed to recognize that this kingdom extended beyond Israel, and that they needed to repent from their long-held and fervent belief and desire that this be restricted to ethnic Israel alone. Baptism would be the mark of their attestation to this, as the passing through the water would symbolize a new Exodus, as God then brought them into the land of the new covenant that He had prepared for them, bringing His people into the life that He desired for them. Now we can rightly understand why he goes on to say that “the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself” (2:39). Here, Peter is presenting the fact of a new covenant people of God, a people for His kingdom, that would include members from all nations---near and far, Jew and Gentile---those whom God had chosen for Himself. Because this involved the elimination of enmity, distrust, and even hatred that had been stoked during years of Gentile oppression, whether perceived or real, (much like the enmity man holds toward God) the repentance and the subsequent love and acceptance that would be needed in order for this kingdom to be effectively established and extended, would come only through the operation of the Holy Spirit, gifting faith and repentance to all that were being called to this kingdom.