Do We Have Personal Angels?

In Acts 12:15, the Christians praying for Peter could not accept that Peter had somehow been released from prison (cf. Acts 12:6–11). When Rhoda announced that Peter was at the door, “They said to her, ‘You are out of your mind.’ But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, ‘It is his angel!’”

Why would they claim, “It is his angel”? Did they believe each person had an angel for some reason? Is this taught somewhere in Scripture?

In exploring the answer to this question, one “non-angelic” conclusion is that his “angel” could have been a human “messenger” since the Greek word angelos could be translated to mean one or the other (e.g., James 2:25). However, the Christians in the house were not keen to get up from their seats and receive a messenger, indicating that they thought no one was actually at the door and that “his angel” was perhaps some hopeful figment of Rhoda’s imagination.

Nonetheless, that they said “It is his angel!” may reflect something of an attempt to give a theologically satisfactory answer to Rhoda for what she saw while at the same time discounting that Peter was physically present at the door. What did their answer mean?

In the OT, angels occasionally protected people from death in some way (e.g., Gen 19:12–14; Dan 6:22) and were thus “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Heb 1:14). An angel like Michael can have “charge” of a nation (Dan 12:1), and Jesus said that children have angels “in heaven” who “always see the face of my Father,” interceding for them when they are despised (Matt 18:10). Jewish lore showed a popular belief in guardian angels and that they could even match the physical appearance of the person being protected.1

This brief survey shows us that Scripture does not explicitly tell us that people have guardian angels, let alone ones who mirror the appearance of the protected. Angels can minister on the behalf of children, the saints, and a nation. But these realities fall short of concluding that every person has an angel that represents or protects us as necessary.

Whatever one may make of Acts 12:15, it is a stretch to theologize about angels from an elusive comment made in the heat of the moment. If anything, maybe the occasional appearances of angels in Acts moved these Christians to describe something that Rhoda could accept while they could continue with their prayer meeting (ironically, praying for Peter). At the most, maybe they believed an angel had been sent to encourage the Christians to keep on praying for Peter. At the least, and more likely, perhaps they were saying whatever they could to pacify Rhoda. Either way, like the rest of Scripture, Acts 12:15 does not necessarily suggest a belief that each person has a personal angel.

  1. Darrell L. Bock, Acts (BECNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 428–29. []

And First Place for Christian Convert Goes to….

If you had the opportunity to give the gospel to only twenty people, who would be on your list? Who would be “first place” on your list of hopefuls for salvation?

Please don’t misunderstand—I am not advocating giving the gospel to only those who you like or those who are like you. Such a narrow field of evangelism reeks something of favoring the rich over the poor in James 2:1–12. Instead, we realize that God desires the salvation of all men (1 Tim 2:4), that Christ has commissioned the church to take the gospel to all the world (Matt 28:18–20), and that we therefore go to all men everywhere, telling them to repent in light of Christ’s soon return (Acts 17:30–31).

But no individual can reach billions of people. So then, practically speaking, who would be some of those billions that you could reach with the gospel?

While we could easily look around us and fill out our list right away, a look at the example of Cornelius in Acts 10 helps to cement the obvious for us from Scripture—start by giving the gospel to the people you already know.

Acts 10:1–8 records Cornelius’s encounter with an angel. Cornelius was commanded to send for Peter and did so by sending three men. When they reached Peter, we then find out that the angel told Cornelius to send for Peter, as the three told him, “to hear what you have to say” (Acts 10:22 ESV). When Peter met Cornelius, Cornelius let Peter know that he and others were gathered “to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord” (Acts 10:33 ESV). When Peter related these matters to the church in Jerusalem, he recounted what Cornelius had told him of why the angel commanded him to send for Peter—because “he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved” (Acts 11:14 ESV).

“A message by which you will be saved”—does that strike you in the heart when you think of the lost that you love? It should because you as a Christian have that saving message!

It certainly struck Cornelius this way. The angel told him that the message was not just for him. It was for “you and all your household” (Acts 11:14 ESV). So, as anyone who desired the salvation of his household would do, he gathered them together in preparation for them to hear the gospel at Peter’s arrival. In fact, he gathered more than that—“Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends” (Acts 10:24 ESV). When Peter’s time to speak had come (cf. Acts 10:34–43), he “found many persons gathered” (Acts 10:27 ESV).

His “household,” “relatives,” and “friends,” altogether being “many persons”—do you know a few folks like this? Unsaved members in your immediate family? Unsaved relatives? Unsaved friends?

If you do (and everybody does), as a Christian, you don’t need angels, visions, or a Peter to walk in your door for their conversion. The gospel has been going to the uttermost ends of the earth for 2,000 years, and you yourself have the saving message by which these dear, lost loved ones can come to Christ. In carrying out the Great Commission, be like Cornelius and give the gospel to those you know. Share his zeal, and you just might be able to fill a room with people that you have given the gospel over time.

May we all be like Cornelius and invite many to hear the message by which they will be saved!

The Sad Case of Simon the Magician: A Warning to Us All

Acts 8:1–25 records the great persecution of the church by Saul and the consequent spread of the gospel to Samaria through Philip. “Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ” (Acts 8:5), and “there was much joy in that city” (Acts 8:8; cf. 8:6–7).1

Prior to Philip’s coming, “a man named Simon” had wowed Samaria with his magic (8:9–11). “But when they believed Philip” (Acts 8:12), so also “Simon himself believed,” was “baptized,” and even “continued with Philip” (Acts 8:13). Whereas Samaria was once “amazed…with his magic” (Acts 8:11), it was now Simon who was “amazed” at Philip’s “signs and great miracles” (Acts 8:13).

After Simon’s apparent conversion, however, he made a troubling request, indicating that he had never truly become a Christian. Peter and John had come to see the salvation of Samaritans, “laid their hands on them,” and “they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17; cf. 8:14–17). Simon then “offered them money, saying, ‘Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 8:20). For the next four verses in Acts 8:20–23, Peter rebuked him in multiple ways:

Simon was condemned: “May your silver perish with you”—Simon himself would perish, and his silver stood as a part for the whole of why he would perish—his hope to use it to purchase the Spirit to benefit himself by being seen as great like the apostles (cf. Acts 8:9–11). It was previously (and obviously inaccurately) said of him as a magician, “This man is the power of God that is called Great” (Acts 8:10). His request, “Give me this power,” seems to betray his desire for a power that shows him as great in the eyes of others (Acts 8:19).

Simon’s theology was corrupt: “you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money”—if ever the NT gives us an example of the prosperity gospel, it is here. Give silver to God, and He will give the Spirit’s power to me, Simon thought. But a gift cannot be purchased. The Spirit comes with faith. And in this unique transitional episode in Acts, faith came first, and the Spirit came with the laying on of the apostles’ hands.

Simon had no share in the Spirit: “You have neither part nor lot in this matter”—these words indicate that the “matter” of the Spirit was something altogether outside Simon’s experience. He was not one who possessed or would receive (or let alone give) the Holy Spirit.

Simon’s heart was in the wrong: “your heart is not right before God”—his intentions were sinful (see below).

Simon had not repented: “Repent”—his request was something to acknowledge as sin and indicated that he had never turned from sin to begin with.

Simon’s request was wicked: “this wickedness of yours”—this is a further description of his view of the Spirit’s work as something to buy as a means to enhance his greatness.

Simon’s desire was sinful: “pray…that…the intent of your heart may be forgiven you”—it was not just the request, but more than that, it was the sinful intention of his heart that needed forgiving.

Simon was idolatrous: “you are in the gall of bitterness”—this description echoes the OT and needs a bit of explanation. Deuteronomy 29:18 uses a metaphor to describe the person who turns from God to follow the stubbornness of his heart, even in the midst of God’s people—he is “a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit.” Such a description had undertones of the coming judgment of God for the person who was this root (cf. Deut 29:20–21; Heb 12:15 speaks to this effect as well). For Simon, despite his presence among the new believers in Samaria, he was still following the unbelieving stubbornness of his heart. Remembering that gall is a bitter liquid (whether bile or something just as bitter; cf. Matt 27:34), Simon was himself the root bearing the gall of bitterness, so much so that he was “in” it. His idolatrous heart led to the rotten produce of treating the Spirit as something to purchase for him to use for his promoting his own personal greatness.

Simon was in bondage to sin: “you are…in the bond of iniquity”—this self-explained phrase parallels and helps to explain the one before it. Just as Simon was “in the bond of iniquity,” so also he could be said to be “in the gall of bitterness.”

With this litany of indictments, Peter’s rebuke makes one thing certain—Simon was not a true believer. But what is not certain for some is how to understand Simon’s response in Acts 8:24, “And Simon answered, ‘Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” Did Simon finally become a Christian at this point?

Some conclude that Simon was so humble that he would not pray for himself but asked for Peter to do so now that his sin was exposed. Surely such humility indicated his now-penitent heart. On the other hand, others point out that Simon dodged the personal responsibility of praying himself, disobeying Peter who had commanded him to do so (Acts 8:22, “Repent… and pray to the Lord”). Rather than taking a third and unsatisfying view that the text is indecisive, that Simon sees no conversion in Acts 8 is best for multiple reasons found within the text.

First, despite Simon’s apparent conversion in Acts 8:13, we find out that he never truly believed the first time around. This fact nudges us to understand his otherwise elusive response in Acts 8:24 in the same way.

Second, Simon never did what Peter commanded him to do—pray and repent (Acts 8:22). We are left to assume that Simon was thus never forgiven.

Third, looking more closely at Simon’s request in Acts 8:24, it was for Peter to intercede for the sake of removing judgment. Given Simon’s background and request to purchase the Spirit’s power, it seems that, just as he saw the apostles as vendors who could sell the Spirit, so also he carries on seeing them as talismans to pray for his protection.

Fourth, in the flow of Acts, our last episode in dealing with something like this was Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11). Just as they were false worshipers in the midst of God’s people, so also it seems Simon was as well.

In the end, from his own words, Simon neither repented nor prayed and merely wished to escape judgment. As best we know, he never believed and was judged accordingly. Such is the unfortunate and sad case of Simon the magician.

May Simon’s case be a warning to all of us—many profess Christ, are baptized, and continue to be among the true children of God. May God give them a Peter or John to point out their sins in this life, leading to true repentance, something more than a mere desire to escape judgment. Otherwise, the hidden sins of their heart will appear in their day of judgment, leading to an eternally unhappy end.

  1. All biblical quotations are from the ESV. []

Sufferings, Glories, and Saving God’s People: Joseph, Moses, and Jesus in Acts 7

In Acts 6:11–14, Stephen is falsely accused of blaspheming God by speaking ill of the Mosaic Law and the temple. Acts 7 then records his speech, notable because it is the longest speech in Acts and one by a non-apostle.

Given a quick read of his speech, we might wonder why it took Stephen 50 verses (Acts 7:2–53) to answer these charges. A closer examination of his words, however, reveals a carefully-crafted response that not only answers the charges against him, but also builds a case to rebuke Israel, ending in a climactic fashion by doing just that.

In leading up to his climactic rebuke, Stephen speaks of how Israel historically sinfully treated the very ones that God had sent to deliver them, how God in turn exalted these prophets, and how God then used these men to deliver His people. Stephen obviously speaks of other people and issues along the way (Abraham in Acts 7:2–8; the temple in Acts 7:44–50), but we will focus on Joseph (Acts 7:9–16) and Moses (Acts 7:33–43) in order to show how Stephen would parallel Israel’s persecution of them with how they had treated Jesus and continued to treat His followers. As Stephen would put it, “As your fathers did, so do you” (Acts 7:51).

First, we consider how Joseph was treated by his brothers, “the patriarchs” (Acts 7:9). They were “jealous of Joseph” and therefore “sold him into Egypt” (Acts 7:9), the beginnings of his sufferings, identified as “all his afflictions” (Acts 7:11). “God,” however, exalted Joseph in that He “was with him and rescued him…and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh…who made him ruler over Egypt” (Acts 7:9–10). Joseph then went on to deliver his family during “a famine” and “great affliction” (Acts 7:11; cf. 7:11–14).

Second, we consider that Moses was treated in a similar way. He was stirred to help his fellow Israelites and even killed an Egyptian in his zeal (Acts 7:23–24). “He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand” (Acts 7:25). In fact, one Israelite represented the nation when he “thrust him [i.e., Moses] aside” and asked, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?” (Acts 7:27). Even after the exodus, Israel again “thrust him aside” and followed idols instead (Acts 7:39). Despite these sufferings, Moses was “sent as both ruler and redeemer,” spoke to the God at the burning bush, led Israel out of Egypt, and was given the Law (Acts 7:35–38). Moses suffered before and after delivering Israel and was exalted in his role as deliverer.

Third, we see that Joseph and Moses bring us to Jesus. In the climactic conclusion to Stephen’s speech and the description that followed, we see the suffering and exaltation of Jesus. “As your fathers did,” Stephen stated (i.e., as they persecuted Joseph and Moses, not to mention the prophets – cf. Acts 7:52), “so do you” (Acts 7:51). Specifically, these Israelites had “betrayed and murdered” Jesus, “the Righteous One” who was prophesied by Moses to come (cf. Acts 7:37; cf. Deut 18:15). Despite His sufferings at the hand of Israel, however, God exalted Jesus. As these Israelites rushed to end Stephen’s life, Stephen testified that Jesus was “standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55–56). And though Joseph and Moses were used to deliver Israel from famine and Egypt, Jesus could bring these Israelites no deliverance at this time—they murdered Him, would murder Stephen, and would continue to persecute Christians thereafter (cf. Acts 8:1–3).

Perhaps we could add Stephen as a fourth in this text as one who experienced suffering and glory. He was obviously not meant to eclipse Jesus in the text, but he does seem to function as an example for Christians in general—like him, they also would be persecuted (cf. Acts 8:1–3). Though he sought to deliver his fellow man by giving them the gospel, his listeners made him suffer instead of receiving this salvation. His exaltation was seen as Jesus gave him a standing ovation, so to speak, to welcome him to glory for faithfully giving the gospel, even to the point of death.

May we all as Christians be like Stephen in that we are willing to suffer as messengers of the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. And whether the Lord lets us die a martyr’s death or rescues us at His return, our glorification is waiting, which is to “be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).1

  1. All biblical quotations are from the ESV. []

Like an Angel: The Shining Face of Stephen

What did it mean that Stephen’s “face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15), and why did it look this way?

We first meet Stephen as a deacon, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). He was appointed to coordinate meals for widows (cf. Acts 6:1–7), but he was also an evangelist. He was “full of grace and power…doing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). This grace and power go together and describe the boldness of Stephen and God’s confirmation of his witness through wonders and signs (cf. Acts 4:33). The mention of grace likely implies that God extended His saving grace to others through the witness of Stephen (cf. Acts 11:23).

When opposed by others in his endeavors, Stephen refuted his aggressors, and “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:10; cf. Luke 21:15). So, they lied, stirred up the people, arrested him, falsely tried him, and eventually stoned him, making him the first martyr of the church (Acts 6:8–7:60). His story has echoes of the final days of Jesus.

At the outset of his trial, as Stephen prepared to speak once again full of wisdom and the Spirit, the Bible records what everyone saw when looking at Stephen: “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). What did this angel-like face mean?

In answering this question, we recall that angels can be brilliant, shining creatures. Remember the angel at Jesus’ empty tomb—“His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow” (Matthew 28:3). If Daniel 10:6 describes an angel (some say the preincarnate Son of God), “his face” is “like the appearance of lightning.” If Revelation 10:1 describes an angel (and again, some say the now-incarnate Son of God), “his face was like the sun.” The angelic creatures who guided the heavenly chariot in Ezekiel’s vision had four faces each, and as to their faces and even their whole beings, “their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning” (Ezekiel 1:13). The point of similarity between the face of Stephen and the face of an angel was most likely this—it was a shining face.

A shining face is seen on other humans in the Bible as well. In descending from Sinai with the tablets in hand, “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God…behold, the skin of his face shone” (Exodus 34:29).This shining apparently was somewhat frequent at this time. “Whenever” Moses spoke with God while on the mountain, “the skin of Moses’ face was shining” (Exodus 34:34–35).  

Consider also the face of Jesus. At the Transfiguration, while Jesus “was praying, the appearance of his face was altered” (Luke 9:29), meaning “his face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). When John saw Jesus in his vision many years later, “his face was like the sun shining in full strength” (Revelation 1:16).

Putting this all together, we can easily conclude that the alteration of Stephen’s face was an act of God to make it shine. The purpose for doing so seems to be along the lines of what took place with Moses—just as the shining of Moses’ face indicated to Israel that Moses spoke on behalf of God because he spoke directly to Him, so also the shining of Stephen’s face indicated to Israel that Stephen spoke on behalf of God as well.

Digging further into the context of Exodus 34 and Acts 6–7, perhaps we could also suggest that, just as Moses gave the law and was confirmed as God’s spokesman with a shining face, so also Stephen’s face indicated that was speaking on behalf of Christ who came to fulfill and thus “change the customs that Moses delivered” (Acts 6:14). A new era had come, and God was giving evidence to this through His messenger’s words and even His messenger’s face.

What a sobering thing it is to see hearts this hard—the Jews rejected the gospel proclaimed from a mouth in the midst of a shining face. While we are not prophets who will speak with shining faces today, may we learn from the example of Stephen to boldly give and defend the gospel by the wisdom and Spirit of God.

The Origin of Deacons: Acts 6:1–7

Does Acts 6:1–7 tell us anything about deacons, technically speaking? After all, the word deacon is not used, some of the seven men appointed to ministry also preached (Stephen and Philip), and the seven’s appointment was for a singular task, not serving the church’s tangible needs as a whole.

While such a description may push us towards describing the men in view as something other than deacons, it is fair to conclude that Luke was indeed describing the first appointment of deacons within the church. The task given was managing the distribution of food to widows, an example ministry of how deacons minister to the church. While deacons are not required to teach (cf. 1 Tim 3:8–13), neither are they forbidden from doing so. As for the word deacon, their ministry in Acts 6 was to “serve tables,” and the word serve is translated from diakoneō, the verb form from which we get our title deacon (cf. 1 Tim 3:8, diakonos).

When compared to 1 Timothy 3:1–13, Acts 6:1–7 provides further indicators that deacons are in view. One contrast between an overseer in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and a deacon in 1 Timothy 3:8–13 is that an overseer was to be able to teach, but not a deacon. In Acts 6:1–7, the apostles were unique as apostles, yes, but they also functioned as the church’s first overseers and were thus given to the “preaching of the word of God” (Acts 6:2), which is also described as “the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). The seven, however, were appointed in order to keep the apostles from being distracted from this focus, and the preaching of Stephen and Philip was something in addition to and did not take away from their ministry to the widows. Just as overseers and not deacons have to be able to teach, so also the overseeing apostles needed to give their time to teaching and not the seven who were appointed to serve the widows’ tables.

A comparison between Acts 6:1–7 and 1 Timothy 3:8–13 also shows that, just as the seven were to meet certain character requirements, so also are deacons in general. In Acts 6:3, being “of good repute,” being “full of the Spirit,” and having the “wisdom” necessary to oversee a practical ministry is simply shorthand for the more detailed requirements for deacons found in 1 Timothy 3:8–13.

Having explored the above, we see something of the amazing unity and diversity that Christ has ordained for the church. Just as some members may be the mouths who speak the word of God, so also others are the hands that tend to the church’s specific, tangible needs. One ministry could not exist without the other, and when these ministries work in harmony, the word of God increases, disciples multiply, and many become obedient to the faith (cf. Acts 6:7).

The Names of Jesus and Their Significance in Acts 3–4

Acts 3–4 records how Peter and John healed a lame man. As their spokesman, Peter explained to the Jewish people (Acts 3:12–26) and their leaders (Acts 4:8–12) that the healing took place by faith in Jesus’ name, that is, that by believing in the one named Jesus who has the power to give salvation and heal. Within his explanations, he gave several names for Jesus, which are listed and briefly explained below.

Jesus Christ of Nazareth (Acts 3:6; 4:10; cf. 3:18, 20)

In speaking to the Israelites, Peter did not just name Jesus but specified Him as the Messiah, the prophesied Christ of the OT. He at times simply called Him “the Christ” and “His Christ,” that is, the Christ sent by the Father. He is described as “of Nazareth,” His hometown (cf. Luke 4:16).

His Servant Jesus (Acts 3:13, 26)

Jesus is “his servant,” that is, the servant of the Father. In both mentions of Jesus as “servant,” He is said to have been “raised from the dead” or “raised up” (Acts 3:15, 26), and the first of these two descriptions parallels the idea of God having “glorified” Jesus (Acts 3:13).1 Tracing these themes to the OT, Isaiah quoted the Father’s words and prophesied, “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted” (Isa 53:10 ESV), an interesting notion when Isaiah would go on to describe in this “servant song” how the Messiah would suffer (cf. Isa 52:13–53;12 with Acts 3:13–15; cf. also Luke 22:37 with Isa 53:12). Having just a snapshot of Peter’s words, we at least have enough in concept and terminology to assume he explained Jesus in terms of Isaiah’s prophecy, the Servant who suffered for us and has now been glorified through the resurrection (not to mention His sharing the Father’s throne; cf. Acts 2:33–36).

The Holy and Righteous One (Acts 3:14)

Jesus was perfectly holy, as acknowledged by Himself (Rev 3:7), His own (John 6:69; Heb 7:26), and even demons (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). He was the prophesied Messiah who was perfect and right and thus righteous in all His doings (Isa 11:4; 32:11; 53:11; Jer 23:5; Zech 9:9; 1 John 2:1).

The Author of Life (Acts 3:15)

Whereas Hebrews emphasizes the example of Jesus as our “author” or “founder” of salvation and faith (Heb 2:10; 12:2; cf. Acts 5:31; archēgos is the same term in each verse though variously translated), Peter uses the term here to emphasize Jesus as the giver of life. He not only restored a man to “perfect health” (Acts 3:16), but His second coming would bring about the prophesied “times of refreshing” and “restoring all the things” as well (Acts 3:19, 21).

A Prophet (Acts 3:22)

Jesus was not just a prophet but the Prophet to whom His people would listen, as Moses prophesied long ago (Deut 18:15, 18, 19). Peter identified Jesus as this prophet, and the Israelites were thus warned that failure to listen to His words and obey Him would lead to their destruction (Acts 3:23).

The Cornerstone (Acts 4:11)

Peter identified Jesus as the rejected cornerstone of Ps 118:22. Though the builders (Israelites) had rejected the stone (i.e., they killed Him), the Father made Him the cornerstone (i.e., He raised Him up and exalted Him). Whereas the psalm described the nations as opposing Israel’s king (Ps 118:10), here it is the leaders of Israel. Nonetheless, the church would be built upon Christ (Eph 2:20; 1 Pet 2:5–6) and a renewed Israel in time to come (Matt 21:42–44; cf. Mark 12:9–11; Luke 20:16–17).

Two themes stand out from Peter’s use of these titles. First, in using these titles and likely explaining their meaning from the OT, Peter was able to explain both the sufferings and glories of Christ (cf. 1 Pet 1:10–12). As the Servant, Jesus suffered but was exalted. As a stone, Jesus was rejected but then made the cornerstone. As a Prophet, some would not listen, but they would ultimately be destroyed and not Him.

Second, in using these titles, Peter’s Israelite audience was sorely rebuked. They killed this Jesus, the Christ from Nazareth through conspiracy and the cross. He was the Servant who would suffer, and they were the ones to make Him suffer. He did not deserve their giving Him a criminal’s death, for He was perfectly holy and righteous. In killing him, they gave death to Him who gives life. And in doing so, they egregiously disobeyed the prophesied Prophet to whom they were supposed to listen.

In the wisdom of God, it was through suffering that Jesus would find Himself exalted. And in the mercy of God, here these Israelites heard another appeal to turn to God through Christ and know forgiveness from sin.

  1. Acts 3:13–15 seems to have somewhat of a chiasm. God glorified His Servant (Acts 3:13a), the Jews denied Him (Acts 3:13b–14a), the Jews killed him (Acts 3:15a), and God raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 3:15b). The first and last of the descriptions of Jesus go together. []

Jesus, Lord and Christ

In Acts 2:36, Peter concludes his sermon in this way: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (ESV cf. Acts 2:14–36). Let’s look at these two titles for Jesus.

First, Jesus is Lord. David identified Him as his Lord to come who the Father would grant to sit at His right hand (Ps 110:1; cf. Acts 2:34–35). The outpouring of the Spirit and the resultant speaking of tongues verified that Jesus had indeed sat down with His Father. The Father gave Him the promised Spirit, He poured the Spirit out, and thus He showed Himself to be Lord. Additionally, as He was given authority to pour out the Spirit (2:33–34; cf. 2:1–13), and as Joel identified as this outpouring as a function of God (Joel 2:28–29; cf. Acts 2:17–18), Jesus is therefore the Lord God who poured out the Spirit.

Second, Jesus is Christ. Christ means “anointed one,” and “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38; cf. Luke 3:21–22). Such an anointing was reserved for the promised Descendant of David, the One who would eternally rule God’s people (Acts 2:30; cf. 2 Sam 7:12–16; Ps 89:3–4, 35–37). An eternal rule could only be accomplished by overcoming death, and for whatever the psalm meant to himself at the time, David “spoke of the resurrection of the Christ” (Acts 2:31) when he prophesied in Ps 16:8–11 that the Holy One, God’s anointed king, would neither be abandoned in death nor see corruption—He would be in the presence of God forever (Acts 2:25–28). Thus, God raised Jesus up from the dead, Jesus ascended into heaven (cf. Acts 1:9–11), and there Jesus is “exalted at the right hand of God” as promised in Ps 110:1. He is indeed the Spirit-anointed King who overcame death and will rule God’s people as Christ.

Given these two titles, it is no wonder that the Israelites listening to Peter “were cut to the heart” once they learned who “this Jesus” really was (Acts 2:37). They had crucified Him, the very Lord and Christ who was the Author of their salvation! What a dilemma to be in! Nonetheless, the mercy of God was on full display on the day of Pentecost—even these Israelites who had crucified Jesus could call on His name, repent, and find forgiveness in Him (Acts 2:38–39).

For us today, we may not have called for Jesus’ crucifixion with the crowds or jeered at Jesus at Golgotha, but we are just as deserving of punishment for our sins as they were then. May we be reminded of the great mercy it is that Jesus our Savior was crucified for us, and may we see Him for who He really is—Lord and Christ over all!

The OT in Peter’s NT Pentecost Message

In Acts 2:14–41, Luke records Peter quoting or alluding to a half-dozen passages or so in his Pentecost sermon. These passages are listed below along with a snapshot explanation for why Peter quoted each passage.

Joel 2:28–32a in Acts 2:16–21
Peter quoted Joel to identify the cause for speaking in tongues as something of the same nature of the outpouring of the Spirit that will take place before the end of our present age. As in Joel’s day and as in the future day about which he prophesied, so also it was on the day of Pentecost—all who called out on the name of the Lord would be saved.

Psalm 16:8–11 in Acts 2:25–28
Peter quoted and applied David’s psalm to Jesus. It was not David but his descendent Jesus who had not been abandoned to Hades and seen his flesh corrupted. God raised this Jesus up and exalted Him to His right hand. The proof of this exaltation was Jesus’ having received and sent the Spirit, resulting in many speaking in tongues.

Psalm 132:11 in Acts 2:30
Peter alluded to this psalm, which in turn summarizes the covenant between God and David in 2 Sam 7:12–16 (and sounds much like Ps 89:3–4, 35–37). God swore an oath to David that He would set one of his descendants on his throne forever. This descendant is Jesus.

Psalm 110:1 in Acts 2:34–35
Peter quoted this psalm to identify the exalted position of Jesus at the right hand of the Father. This position was the explanation behind why the people heard Peter and others speaking in tongues. Only Jesus at the Father’s right hand could have been given and poured out the Spirit, which also meant that He was raised from the dead in order to be there.

Isaiah 57:19, Joel 2:32b, and Others in Acts 2:39b
Peter alluded to Isaiah and maybe other texts and then Joel’s prophecy again to instruct his listeners who could receive the Holy Spirit. The promised Spirit and salvation were for anyone that the Lord calls to Himself (Joel 2:32b), children included (similar to many passages – cf. Gen 9:9; 17:7, 9, 10; 28:14; Deut 30:19), even if they were from far off (Isa 57:19; cf. Acts 2:9–11).

Deut 32:5 and Ps 78:8 in Acts 2:40b
Peter exhorted his listeners to be saved from this crooked generation. In the Septuagint, “crooked” is used by both Moses and Asaph to describe Israel in Moses’ day as well, a fitting parallel for Peter’s generation who nailed Jesus to the cross.

Questions and Answers about Speaking in Tongues

While I realize that many disagree with cessationist beliefs (i.e., that special revelation and its occasionally-accompanying sign-gifts such as tongues were limited to the apostolic era and have thus ceased), it is helpful for anyone to study the topic of speaking in tongues as it is involves multiple chapters in Acts and 1 Corinthians. I know it has been helpful for me, and these are some answers from my own study that I provided to my church while preaching through Acts 2. My intent is certainly not to argue with anyone or stir debate with those who disagree. I don’t expect to bring others to my convictions (though I would not object if that happened!). I simply hope to share what I and my church believe for the benefit of others. Whatever your position may be, if otherwise, perhaps you will find it helpful as well. 

What were people saying when they spoke in tongues?

The speakers were speaking actual, human languages. Acts 2:1–13 provides an example of multiple tongues (languages) being spoken and lists them out. In the context of instructing the Corinthians, Paul states, “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning” (1 Cor 14:10), implying that, whatever words they were speaking, and whether or not they had spoken the language before, they were being spoken in a meaningful, human language.
In 1 Cor 13:1, Paul supposes a situation in which he could speak in “tongues…of angels.” In doing so, Paul could have been speaking hyperbolically to stress the role of love as the motivation for using spiritual gifts—even if hypothetical but actually impossible angelic tongues could be spoken, even this kind of superlative tongue-speech is unprofitable if spoken for self and without love (cf. 1 Cor 13:1–7). Or, as he “heard things” in “the third heaven” and “paradise…which man may not utter,” the tongues of angels may be real, angelic languages but still impermissible for man to utter, even with the gift of tongues (2 Cor 12:2–4).

Acts describes in the content of tongues-speech in various ways. First, the content involved “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11), which had to do with works such as the resurrection of Jesus and finding salvation through the Spirit in Him (cf. Acts 2:14–41). Second, the content had to do with “extolling God” (Acts 10:46). Most likely, the context of Acts 10 involved new converts extolling (praising) God for what they had just believed of the gospel as well (cf. Acts 10:34–43). Third, speaking in tongues is joined with “prophesying” (Acts 19:6). As Peter explained speaking in tongues in terms of prophecy (cf. Acts 2:17), and as it spoke of “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11), the content of tongues in Acts 19 likely involved prophesying in that they speakers were praising God for His mighty work through Christ for salvation as well.

Added to the above, Paul identifies the content of tongues-speech as “mysteries” (1 Cor 14:2). “Everywhere in Paul’s writings ‘mysteries’ were truths about God and His program that for a time remained hidden, but were at that moment revealed through the inspired writer (Rom. 11:25; 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; 13:2; 15:51; Eph. 3:3–4, 9; 5:32; Col. 1:26).”1 For one speaking in tongues, these truths about God and His program were not essentially different from the other mysteries Paul would reveal in Scripture after writing to the Corinthians. The difference is that, with tongues, the mysteries were spoken.

What was the purpose for speaking in tongues?

On a basic level, the purpose for speaking in tongues indicated to the speakers and others that the speakers had been given the Spirit (Acts 2:1–13 with 2:33; Acts 10:46 with 10:47; Acts 19:2 with 19:6).

Paul likewise taught that “tongues are a sign…for unbelievers” (1 Cor 14:22). Looking more closely at the examples of tongues as the gift involved unbelievers in Acts, we could say that, like other miracles (a miraculous gift in this instance), tongues signified to unbelievers that what was being said of God’s Word was true (Acts 2; cf. 1 Kgs 17:24; Acts 14:3; Heb 2:4). In the other instances, tongues signified to new converts and especially others that the new converts had indeed believed the gospel and had been accepted by God as His people (Acts 10, 19). They could not speak in tongues by the Spirit if they did not have the Spirit. Within the gathered assembly (the situation that Paul is addressing in 1 Cor 14), it seems tongues could have likewise verified the truth or the certainty of one’s conversion as long as certain guidelines were followed (cf. 1 Cor 14:27–28).

Though these passages are not exactly alike in every detail, each passage somehow involved unbelievers and speaking in tongues. Either unbelievers heard the tongues-speech and then believed, or unbelievers believed and then spoke in tongues to confirm their belief.

 Are some Christians able to speak in “private prayer languages”?
A surface level reading of 1 Corinthians 14 leads some to the conclusion that Paul spoke of privately praying in tongues. After all, in the context of instructing the Corinthians about how to speak in tongues, Paul did mention that “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God” (1 Cor 14:2), that “the one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself” (1 Cor 14:4), that one can “pray in a tongue” (1 Cor 14:14), and that he could “speak to himself and to God” (1 Cor 14:28).
For each of these passages, however, one should remember that the entirety of 1 Cor 12–14 has to do with the assembled church and not what to do in a private, isolated setting. Paul’s repeated point in 1 Cor 14 is that the Corinthians were to do what edified the assembly (1 Cor 14:5, 12, 19, 26). With this necessary contextual element in mind, speaking or praying in a tongue to God alone should be understood as a misuse of tongues—an interpreter was necessary to make known to all the mysteries given by the Spirit, and the assembly would thus be edified (cf. 1 Cor 14:5). If an interpreter was not present, the one who could have spoken in tongues was to remain silent (1 Cor 14:28), be personally built up by silently contemplating the mysteries he could have otherwise spoken (1 Cor 14:4, 28), and let edification prevail through prophecy instead (1 Cor 14:5, 19). To clarify, tongues could certainly have involved praying in a tongue (cf. 1 Cor 14:14), but only in the assembly. The gift of tongues was meant to edify others.

Should missionaries witness in tongues?

In Acts 2, unbelievers heard the mighty of acts of God being declared in their native languages (Acts 2:8–11), which eventually led to the salvation of many (Acts 2:41). Moreover, Paul declared that “tongues are a sign…for unbelievers” (1 Cor 14:22). Should we attempt today to speak in tongues to unbelievers as a sign that what we say is true, which may lead to their salvation?

As a cessationist, I would obviously answer no to the question of whether or not missionaries should witness in tongues. But even if we set cessationism aside, the book of Acts describes this kind of thing only once in all of its 28 chapters (Acts 2). In Acts 10 and 19, it is not even the missionaries who were speaking in tongues. A well-known hermeneutical axiom is helpful here for Acts 2 (and Acts 10 and 19 for that matter)—“the descriptive is not necessarily prescriptive.” Stated another way, “narrative is not necessarily normative.”

If anything, this sign-gift fits with the overall theme of Acts—how the gospel spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8). People spoke in tongues in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1–13), maybe further to Judea and Samaria (compare Acts 8:14–17 with 10:44–48), yet further to Caesarea (Acts 10:44–48), and yet even further all the way to Ephesus (Acts 19:1–7). The gift of tongues verified that the Spirit was given to believers in Jerusalem and others as the gospel spread to new and further geographic regions.

Should new converts to speak in tongues once they believe the gospel (e.g., Acts 10:44–48 and 19:1–7)?

Again, as a cessationist, I would answer no. But, along the lines of how we just answered the last question, if we build our expectations for new converts according to narrative descriptions alone, we should also include the instances of people being saved without speaking in tongues immediately thereafter (e.g., Paul in Acts 9, the Philippian jailer in Acts 16, etc.). Even for the book of Acts, speaking in tongues is not a uniform element for those who come to Christ.

Some try to narrow tongues-speaking and conversion to what happens on the frontiers of the gospel in a way that parallels Acts 10 and 19. But again, even with cessationism set aside, this claim is at best making a narrative normative, albeit in a limited way. It may keep tongues and any related excesses out of established congregations and isolate the gift to the ends of earth, but we have no direct instruction to expect this kind of thing. Narrative is not necessarily normative.

Does speaking in tongues have anything to do with reversing the judgment of tongues in Genesis 11?

Some suggest that the confusion of tongues at Babel in Gen 11 is “reversed” through tongues breaking the language barrier in Acts 2. The table of nations in Gen 10 likewise finds a parallel in the languages listed in Acts 2:8–11. And just as language was confused in Gen 11 to spread man over the earth, so also Acts 2 gives unity in language through tongues to take the gospel to every end of the earth to which man has spread (cf. Acts 1:8).2 Or, a softer conclusion, maybe Acts 2 showed the judgment of Gen 11 being not actually but only “symbolically broken” and will be “realized finally” at “the fulfillment of kingdom expectations (Rev. 5:9).”3

As interesting as these parallels may be, Acts 2 does not explicitly identify its events as a reversal of the judgment of Gen 11. Moreover, it does not even record everyone (whatever their spiritual state) speaking one, singular language, which would have been a full reversal of Gen 11. Many languages persist today as they did in Acts 2.4 That tongues are no longer spoken today is further evidence (for the cessationist) that Gen 11 has not been reversed as well.

No study is complete without looking at the Scriptures for yourself, but hopefully the above can be an introductory guide in studying this difficult topic. If nothing else, what an amazing gift it was for some to speak in tongues, edify others, and show the spread of the gospel!

  1. Robert Thomas, Understanding Spiritual Gifts (revised edition; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 87. []
  2. Chalmer E. Faw, Acts (Believers Church Bible Commentary: Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993), 51. []
  3. Chad Brand, s.v., “Tongue” in the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman, 2003), 1605. []
  4. Max Turner, s.v., “Languages,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 628. []