Acts 2:37-39

‘When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “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 2:37-39, New International Version


The crowd that gathered on the day of Pentecost asked, “What does this mean?” Peter answered this question in his sermon. At the end of his sermon, the people in the crowd ask a second question, “Brothers, what shall we do?” As Rea states, ‘their second question was really two in one ‘What shall we do to escape our share of guilt in the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah,” and “What shall we do to experience the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which was promised us in Joel’s prophecy?”‘ (p. 156). Peter’s reply deals with both of these concerns.


In answer to their twofold question, Peter tells the crowd that they must repent. The Greek word that Peter uses is metanoeo. According to Arndt and Gingrich, metanoia means a change of mind and remorse (pp. 513-514). It includes the negative side of turning away from evil and the positive side of turning toward God. According to Lenski, when “repent” is used without modifiers, as it is here, the word includes faith (St. Luke’s, p. 105). When to believe is added, then contrition alone is meant. Here, Peter could have said, “repent and believe in Christ,” but he simply said “repent”. The fact that they were to believe in Christ was understood.

Be Baptized

Now, Peter instructed the crowd, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for (eis) the forgiveness of your sins. According to Robertson the preposition eis can express aim or purpose (Word Pictures, p. 35). Using this interpretation, the individuals in the audience would be baptized with the purpose of being forgiven of sins. This makes baptism necessary for the remission of sins. In contrast to this, says Robertson eis can mean on the basis of forgiveness of sins (p. 35). Under this approach, baptism becomes a testimony to what has already occurred through repentance and faith. Most evangelicals hold to this view.

According to Peter, baptism is a step toward receiving the gift of the Spirit. We note the close connection between water baptism and the gift of the Spirit here and in Acts 8:14-17; 9:17-18; 10:47-48 and 19:5-7. However, water baptism is not a necessary prerequisite to receiving the gift of the Spirit. At the house of Cornelius, the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Gentiles came before they were baptized. Indeed, Peter regarded the outpouring of the Spirit as evidence that they should be baptized.

Gift of the Holy Spirit

Those who repent and are baptized will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Before discussing the reception of the Spirit, we will consider the gift of the Spirit.

The Spirit is given to those who believe in Christ. When one comes to faith in Christ, one is indwelt by Christ and by the Spirit. One is united with Christ and receives the Spirit. This gift of the Spirit is necessary to salvation. As Paul wrote, “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ,” (Romans 8:9).

Many believe that this is the only gift of the Spirit. They view this gift comprehensively to refer to the Spirit in all His ministries. Emphasis is put on the Spirit’s role in salvation. Empowerment is made to be an element in the whole.

Another approach does not limit the gift of the Spirit to one occasion. The Spirit is given again and, indeed, in one sense is continuously given. For example, in Ephesians 5:18, Paul exhorts us to be filled with the Spirit. Unlike the previous view, this approach does not restrict the gift term to the initial reception.

Now, we come to the question, “What did Peter mean by the ‘gift of the Spirit?'” Peter understood the role of the Spirit in salvation itself. In I Peter 1:2 he spoke of the sanctifying work of the Spirit. However, Peter does not use the term gift of the Spirit in this connection.

In Peter’s sermon his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, he emphasizes Joel’s prophecy concerning the outpouring of the Spirit that results in prophetic speech (Joel 2:28-32). What the crowd saw and heard stirred their interest. Peter was explaining to the crowd how they, too, could receive such a gift.

Throughout Acts the term gift of the Spirit is used in the sense of empowerment. Compare Acts 5:32; 8:18; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17 and 15:8. In Acts 11:17, Peter defended his action in baptizing the Gentiles with this comment, “So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17).

We must keep in mind the specific focus of the Day of Pentecost. When we do, we conclude that the gift of the Spirit in Acts 2:38 refers primarily to the empowerment of the Spirit to speak prophetically as promised in Joel 2:28-32. This prophetic speaking is a powerful witness.

Shall Receive

Now, let us consider the verb shall receive. The individuals in the crowd were exhorted to repent. This means that they have listened to the gospel and have felt the sting and guilt of their sins. Peter exhorts them to repent and, clearly, they are to believe in Christ. Then, they are to testify to their newfound life in Christ through baptism. Having done these things, they shall receive the gift of the Spirit.

When people come to Christ in faith, they are indwelt by the Spirit. As suggested above, we say that they have received the Spirit. However, Peter primarily has in mind another reception–the gift of the Spirit promised by Joel. This gift, too, will be received by faith.

Some people object to the idea of more than one reception on the ground that it divides the Spirit into parts. Lenski’s comments on this point are very helpful (St. John’s, p. 1373-1374). He writes:

“Let us understand once for all that any and every reception of the Spirit means that the Spirit himself, the entire and undivided Third Person of the Trinity, is received. We can no more split up the Spirit than we can split up the Father or the Son . . . Nor need the fact disturb us that those who already have the Spirit are said to receive him anew. Once he comes with one gift and one purpose, than he comes with other gifts and a greater purpose.”

Without doubt the initial indwelling of the Spirit takes place automatically when one believes in Christ. Nevertheless, with regard to the gift of the Spirit identified by Peter, a question remains. Is this gift always automatically received in response to saving faith or are there times when the believer must again actively exercise faith.

Grammatically, either view is possible, but the context of the Day of Pentecost points to the latter view. Moreover, the believer must continuously and repeatedly exercise faith to receive all of God’s blessings, including the gift of the Spirit.

The Promise

Now, Peter says, For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself. We will consider what Peter meant by the promise and then to whom it applies.

The term promise can be used broadly to include all of God’s promised blessing to believers. It can be used comprehensively, but it can be used more narrowly as well.

In Joel 2:32 and Acts 2:21, the promise is made that all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. The meaning is that all who respond to the Spirit-inspired prophetic word and believe in Christ shall be saved. However, nothing is said about the work of the Spirit in salvation.

The meaning of promise in 2:39 has to do with the Holy Spirit. The particular reference is to Joel 228-29 and Acts 2:17-18. Joel 2:28-29 was the promise itself. According to the promise, the disciples would be empowered with the Holy Spirit. We can say, therefore, that the promise is 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.” The phrase “you and your children” refers to the believing Jews then and now. As Paul makes clear in Ephesians 2:11-17, “you who were far away” refers to the Gentiles. The breath of this promise is underscored when Peter adds that the promise is to as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself. God’s desire is to mobilize all the members of the church for His cause.


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Copyright © 2001. GMF

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