“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
(Acts 2:22-24 ESV)
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 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 2:36-38 ESV)
Christian theology for the past seventeen hundred years at least, has placed a huge emphasis on doctrine, that is the ability to understand and clearly verbalize certain things, as what secures the eternal condition of men’s souls. And not just things about belief in Christ. We also have to believe certain things about death, Heaven, Hell, the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the rapture, the tribulation, the Millennium, the end of the world, the last judgment, a new heaven and a new earth, and the ultimate consummation of all of God's purposes, or so Christians have said.
The question we have been asking ourselves has been, “What must I believe in order to be saved?” But that’s not the question the people listening to Peter’s sermon on Pentecost were asking. They asked, “What shall we do?” in response to Peter’s preaching.
The testimony about Jesus arose in a Jewish context. That’s why he begins his message (Acts 2:14) by quoting Joel. Of course Peter is preaching to Jews. Whatever non-Jews were in Jerusalem on Pentecost, AD 33 were an insignificant part of the population. “This Jesus…you crucified” is aimed squarely at the Jews of Jerusalem. In Acts 2:14 he addresses them as “Men of Judea” (the Southern Kingdom). In Acts 2:22 he calls them “Men of Israel” (the Northern Kingdom). So he is talking about ALL of Israel. He also quotes Psalm 16 and Psalm 110. These also would have been very familiar to all of the people Peter was preaching to that day.
So what did Peter think was important to preach on in that first Evangelistic sermon? Or is it just evangelistic to Christians of later centuries, who have wanted a major theme to be “how to be saved,” or at least for it to be something about the End Times. But the only mention of escaping the torments of Hell is in reference to Jesus. And the word Peter uses is “Hades,” who, in GREEK mythology was the only child of Cronus and Rhea. In popular culture of the time, Hades had come to mean “the depths of the earth.” Basically, this was a really uncomfortable place where people’s souls sometimes (very rarely, and due to particularly heinous sin) ended up for re-education as they moved toward final rest. But this was not equal to our modern Christian concept of Hell. The original (Hebrew) version of Psalm 16 that Peter is quoting uses the word “Sheol” – simply the place of rest – as Jews had no understanding of Heaven the way we think of it either. It may be that Peter replaced the Jewish word Sheol with the Greek Hades as a way of saying that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” It may also be that Luke, realizing he was writing a World document when he penned Acts, was making accommodation for the growing Gentile expansion of the faith.
But the amazing, troubling thing for all of us who have been trained to use a five-verse “gospel” presentation to lead people to Christ, is that Peter never mentions escape from Hell as of any concern to his audience. What Peter is saying that the One who was, in himself, the answer to all that concerned contemporary Judaism had come, and that the people of Judea and Israel had sinned in such a massive way as to put their One True Hope to death. The good news, as Peter presents it on Pentecost, isn’t that you or I can be saved from Hell, but rather, that neither our sin nor death itself could prevent Jesus from being crowned Lord and Christ.
Peter’s audience responded in shock. They now realized the massive nature of their sin and the immense holiness of God. They were cut to the heart and basically grabbed Peter by the lapels and said, “What are we to DO now? Peter, tell us how we can make this horror right.”
Peter’s answer totally blows seventeen hundred years of the emphasis of Church Doctrine, from Nicaea to today, out of the water. He doesn’t say, “Believe in Jesus (and the church, and the Virgin Birth, and the Trinity, and let’s throw in Biblical Inerrancy for good measure), and you’ll be saved from hell.” He says, “Repent (from the sin you just committed) and be baptized,” and you will “save yourselves from this crooked generation.” Not every Jew in Jerusalem is going to understand this. But if YOU have understood it, you’ll be saving yourself from the hellish hearts of people who, like you, crucified the Lord of Glory.
I don’t want you to misunderstand me. Jesus clearly spoke of hell during his ministry, even telling a parable about it (The Rich Man and Lazarus). Jesus also spoke of the church, the Trinity and all the rest. But could it be that our motive in embracing Jesus as Lord would be more about the wonder of how radically he changes hearts, right now, than it is about our eternal destiny? To “repent and be baptized” is a heart response, not a mind response, and knowing all the right things isn’t going to save me. I blew it, and now I’m going to turn away from all that, simply because Jesus is Lord.