Wineskins Archive

December 7, 2013

Repentance and Baptism…and the Jesus Movement (June 2012)

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By Rex Butts

Reading the Bible can be a dangerous thing, especially once scripture is allowed to read us. Increasingly, the story begins to challenge us, provoking responses that question latent assumptions. As this occurs, we are pressed into new thinking and new behaviors. The challenge is always to a more robust faith commitment, requiring a radical dependence on God.

The book of Acts is part of this risky journey. It wants to confront us, arouse our imagination, examine us, and press us beyond all those proof-texts we use to prove our points, so that we might participate in what the story has to say. As this happens, things which seem of the utmost importance may lose some significance, while ideas previously lurking in the sub-conscious realm begin rising to the top, taking on great importance.

That is what has happened with the Pentecost sermon of Acts 2:14-41, and specifically vv. 38-39. This is a well-known passage of scripture for me. I’ve heard many sermons preached from this text and have even preached a few of those sermons myself.

Most of these sermons have fixated on repentance and baptism “for the forgiveness of your sins.”[1] Whether driven by a need to win a debate or the sincere desire to lead a sinner to salvation in Christ, the narrow focus on one particular phrase seems to have eclipsed any other possibility for meaning.

Somewhere in the journey, I began asking myself how the Israelites would have responded had Peter merely told them to repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins, saying nothing about the name of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Is it possible that this would have sounded redundant since they likely would have already received John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. This is not to say that the promise of forgiveness from sin is unimportant here but it is to question its place of primary importance in this passage.

What sets this call apart from the baptism John the Baptist preached is that this call to repentance and baptism is “in the name of Jesus Christ” to “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”[2] This also presents a much more daunting challenge that excites me while also frightening me a bit. Peter has preached the gospel of Jesus Christ for sure but it is the significance of this gospel that makes the call to repentance and baptism such a challenge.

Like many good preachers, Peter preaches a sermon grounded in scripture. He begins quoting the prophet Joel to tell his fellow Israelites that what is happening is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all flesh. This is the “day of the Lord” which Israel has awaited for, the commencement of God’s kingdom reign.[3] Caesar thinks he is king but he is not, for God’s kingdom is at hand.

Except that Peter does not stop here, because he cannot. Not after what he and his fellow apostles and disciples have witnessed over the last fifty days. Their journey has taken them from the despair of Jesus’ crucifixion to the joy of his resurrection and eventual ascension into heaven.

Now it all makes sense. Everything Jesus said and did during his ministry, his crucifixion and resurrection and subsequent ascension … everything is exceedingly clear. God is reigning through King Jesus, and Peter must make this known. So being the preacher he is, he goes back to scripture, calling on two more passages from the Psalms to show that what he is proclaiming – the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus (vv. 32ff) – is even what David had said.

The conclusion is resolute. “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (v. 36).

This conclusion is also very decisive for the hearers, for “they were cut to the heart.” For years I imagined these Israelites being sorry for some general sins … like every time they entertained a lustful thought or every time they treated a widow with contempt. Perhaps so, but that seems to miss the context. Their hearts are burning with pain because they now realize that Jesus, whom they crucified, has been vindicated by God in his resurrection and ascension. This means they also realize that they have been on the wrong side of history when it comes to God who is reigning though Jesus, the Lord and Messiah.

In a gasp of desperation, they ask what can be done. Peter’s answer is a quick and adamant call:

<blockquote>”…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.”</blockquote>

With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation that Jesus is Lord and Messiah, the difference, as noted earlier, with this repentance and baptism is that this call is received in the name of Jesus Christ and with the promise of receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Israelites have come to a fork in the road. They can continue down the path they are on, leading to destruction and judgment, or they can accept this path that God is on. But to choose God requires of them to change their thinking, to let go of their own ways, their own ambitions, their own nationalistic dreams and instead commit themselves to a life that is lived under the authority of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

What follows in the book of Acts is the story about this Jesus movement of those who gave their allegiance to Jesus through repentance and baptism and lived their lives “in the name of Jesus Christ” by the power of this “gift of the Holy Spirit.” This was not Christianity spliced with civil religion and personal ambition. It was a radical mission to be lived with an exclusive commitment to Jesus Christ, fueled by the Holy Spirit.

The same promise is our promise as well. Yes, we receive the forgiveness of our sins –but to be a part of this promise is to live with the same radical commitment to Jesus just as they did – by the same power of the Holy Spirit by whom they lived.

This is more than simply being “church,” as that word so often means today. This is to be a movement, the Jesus movement, here and now. That is exciting. Yet it is scary as well. The demand is great. Can we let go of those ambitions that have nothing to do with the kingdom of God? Can we allow the Holy Spirit to be our fuel, knowing that God just might act through his Spirit in ways that defy the rational box he often has been constrained within? So for those of us who have repented and have been baptized, the excitement and scariness of this challenge comes to one question. Can we accept the reality of our repentance and baptism?<img


1.  All scripture is taken from the New International Version (2011).

2. See Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 154; John Mark Hicks and Greg Taylor, Down to the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism as God’s Transformative Work (Siloam Springs, AR: Leadwood Publishers, 2004), 48-59., for a larger discussion on this issue.

3. Justo L. González, Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 41.

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