The crowded people had listened intently to the man speaking to them. They were drawn to him like a magnet and hanging on every word. Now everything suddenly died down. The silence was deafening. Faces were framed in dumbfounded gazes, and eyes were glistening with tears in the morning sunlight. One eyewitness described to Luke, the author of this account, that the listeners were "cut to the heart" (Acts 2:37).
Their lives had ground to a halt at what was spoken. Something terribly wrong had occurred weeks before, and they were liable. It was like a "hit and run" accident you just became aware of—and you were the driver.
"Men and brethren, what shall we do?"
All of a sudden someone uttered what everyone felt: "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37). What had the apostle Peter said that Pentecost morning in Jerusalem (verse Acts 2:1) that stunned them into such a desperate reality?
He had boldly informed and chastened them as follows: "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know—Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it" (Acts 2:22-24, emphasis added throughout).
He further linked this Jesus to David's words concerning the Messiah or Christ (meaning "Anointed One")—God's promised deliverer (Acts 2:25-35). Peter's indictment inspired by the Holy Spirit would precisely pound away with one more chilling reminder: "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36).
They had killed the Messiah—God's prophesied gift to His chosen people! In the greatest sense, they realized their lives were forfeit in the hands of God.
It's into this abyss of despair that God enters through Peter's utterance and gives hope to the hopeless beyond the moment. It's in this segue between the anguish felt by the crowd and what Peter would next share that we discover a powerful example of how to respond to Jesus' admonition of "Follow Me."
It's here in the space between verses 37 and 38 that we need to linger and learn about ourselves before sharing the gospel with others. God's voice through Peter presented a choice that day by offering something unexpected. The same choice lies before all of us.
The unexpected gift
The blunt reality was that the audience deserved nothing from God, and they now knew it. Along with the Romans, they stood guilty for killing God's Son—who was sent to deliver not only Israel, but ultimately all humanity.
Scripture of old spoke of "an eye for an eye" and life for life. But rather than the earth opening up as in prior times or further verbal fireworks, God inspires Peter to say this: "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" (Acts 2:38).
Peter told them that God offered them a gift. What? Yes, a gift! Talk about the unexpected landing in your lap. They couldn't have imagined such an offering.
The price tag on this particular gift? Unimaginable! They couldn't afford it in multiple lifetimes. There was no way to pay it back or earn it by anything performed here below. But they could show their appreciation by repenting, meaning unconditionally surrendering to God's sovereign will and dedicating themselves to changing the course of their lives by following in the footsteps of Christ's example.
That Pentecost turned out to be an amazing day, as 3,000 people were baptized (Acts 2:41) into the name (Matthew 28:19) of the same One they bore responsibility for killing. This was more than the day designated as the birth of the Church. It marked the birth of a revelation that God has a gift for each of us.
Christianity at its basic level is about a gift—something that comes unexpectedly into our lives in God's timing and way that, when fully understood, takes our breath away. As a matter of fact, it takes our heart away, and we are given a new one to replace it (Ezekiel 36:26).
Peter had himself faltered
Again, the annual festival of Pentecost is about more than the birth of the Church. It's about the birth of a foundational approach we must personally incorporate that underlies why people responded to God's message through Peter.
I'm talking not about what he said (you can read Acts 2 for yourself) but how he said it. It's not what rolled off His tongue but what was spoken from his heart that was on full display and so compelling to the crowd. Peter spoke to dying men as one who'd been a "dead man walking" himself. You can't just put this on! You wear it from the inside out. It's you—warts and all.
Weeks before, Peter had tightened the noose around his own neck by his words spoken to Christ. Jesus had warned him: "Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren" (Luke 22:31-32).
Peter didn't get it then. He came right back saying, "Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death" (Luke 22:33). Was Peter sincere? Absolutely. But he was not ready for the prime time Christ had in store for Him beginning that Pentecost. Jesus replied, "I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me" (Luke 22:34).
Hours later, after Jesus' arrest, these same two men would make eye contact for a brief moment in a courtyard outside the high priest's residence. Luke records what happened when Peter denied Christ the third time as the rooster crowed: "And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said to him, 'Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times'" (Luke 22:61)
That momentary locking of eyes with hearts on full display must have seemed like eternity to Peter. He knew what he had done, and he now fully knew what he was. Luke concludes, "Peter went out and wept bitterly" (Luke 22:62).
Peter was experiencing a crash course in coming to realize that God didn't send His Son to make good men better, but to allow "dead men walking" to truly live for the first time (see Romans 6:11, Romans 6:13). He realized that we are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners! Jesus understood this corruption that had happened to His creation and loved us anyway. And He looked beyond Peter's vain bravado, as well as his moral collapse, and offered Him a future—"when you have returned," He had told Him!
Hope going forward while remembering where we were
Peter's fellow apostle Paul explained such hope beyond our human moments for Christians to understand, embrace and share with others by stating:
"Hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God" (Romans 5:6-9, New Revised Standard Version).
Like Peter and Paul, those who follow Christ today always cherish the fact that their sins have been forgiven, but they never forget where God found them at the bottom of a dark well of their own making.
This helps us to remain humble, drawing other people in to likewise follow God rather than driving them away with a "holier than thou" attitude.
Jesus spoke of these different attitudes in describing how "two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.'
"And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:10-14).
When a man comes to himself
Which of the two men do you think Peter emulated on the day of Pentecost? The man who touted all he had done or the man who realized he was a "dead man walking" apart from God's grace?
Perhaps on that occasion Peter fondly remembered the story shared by Christ when the Pharisees and scribes complained about Him, saying, "This Man receives sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15:1-2).
The religious folk of that society (not pagans or atheists) had taken one look around at the crowd surrounding Jesus and must have blurted out in loathing indignation, "What are they doing here?" Jesus would reply with a trilogy of parables building on one another and ultimately spoke about the prodigal son, the young man who had that awakening moment of "Oh no, what have I done?" and "came to himself" (Luke 15:17).
Now, Peter was on stage, and sinners were all around him. He knew them, because he had been one of them, and yet he'd been given the privilege to "have returned" even after his fall.
Shakespeare once wrote, "He jests at scars that never felt a wound" (Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2)—that is, only those who've never been hurt make light of what others have suffered. Peter had been wounded by his own deeds, and he understood his audience.
It was now his turn to heed Jesus' initial call of "Follow Me"—not merely by what would be said, but how it would be conveyed with a transformed heart soaked in humility. He was ready now to describe the gift and how to unwrap it with faith-filled personal surrender.
Such a message and the underlying tone in which it was given is needed more than ever. Today and every day there's someone asking that same question: "What shall we do?" Peter's reply on behalf of God in Acts 2:38 never changes.
Let's consider the pause between the question asked and our answer given. What you are will speak much louder than what you say, but both can be used together to God's glory and offer hope beyond the moment!