Whenever someone from a confessional Reformed denomination attempts to talk to me, a “Reformed-ish Baptist”, about the need for paedobaptism (infant baptism), they often point to a declaration that the Apostle Peter made on Pentecost: “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.” (Acts 2:39) They mention these words to a primarily Jewish audience as proof that the Abrahamic Covenant’s inclusion of entire households extends to the New Covenant instituted by Jesus Christ, and that the promises made by God are just as applicable to children as they are to adults.
I certainly agree with the second half of that assessment, though I think that we need to also remember the Apostle Paul’s teaching that Abraham’s true children are those by faith. However, my point here is not to refute the Reformed position. Rather, I wanted to share some thoughts I had with regard to this verse that affect the way I think about Covenant Theology, though not necessarily about baptism.
What was the context of Peter’s words? The Holy Spirit had descended upon believers, and they began speaking in different languages that could be understood by the pilgrims who came to Jerusalem from far and wide. The crowd assumed these believers were drunk, but Peter rose up and gave a great sermon in which he appealed first to the prophet Joel’s words that, “I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind”. (Acts 2:17) He then went on to say,
Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know – this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.
Peter then went on to mention the words of David about the coming Lord whose body would not see decay, a reference to Christ’s resurrection. He finished his brief sermon by telling the crowd, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ – this Jesus whom you crucified.” (v. 36)
Luke tells us that when the people heard these words, “they were pierced to the heart”. (v. 37) Why? Because they realized that Jesus was their Messiah and they had rejected Him. Not only that, they had crucified Him. But was it really fair for Peter to place the blame for Christ’s crucifixion on that crowd of people? Were not the Jewish religious leaders, the Roman governor, and the Roman soldiers more to blame?
In one sense, Peter says that it was God Himself who allowed for the crucifixion by calling Christ “this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God…” (v. 23) But in another very important way, I believe that he was placing the blame on the entirety of the Jewish people who had rejected their Messiah. From this point of view, it hardly mattered whether the individual men and women in the crowd on Pentecost had been present at Christ’s condemnation. (It is possible that some of them were there.)
In order to understand this, we need to understand the Mosaic Covenant. Through the incarnation, life and death of Christ, He fulfilled the stipulations of multiple covenants and promises. God promised Eve that one of her descendants would crush the head of the serpent. (Genesis 3:1) Mission accomplished: Christ defeated the devil. He promised Noah that he would never again address the problem of humanity’s sinfulness by bringing a flood to wipe out all life. (Genesis 9:11) Mission accomplished: Christ took the penalty of death upon Himself. He promised Abraham innumerable descendants. (Genesis 15:5) Mission accomplished: Thanks to Christ, Abraham is father to all the children of faith. (Romans chapter 4) He promised David that one of his descendants would reign eternally over Israel. (2 Samuel 7:16) Mission accomplished: Christ’s kingdom is instituted and will be brought to full fruition in the Second Coming.
To understand Peter’s words on Pentecost, I believe we need to think specifically about how Christ fulfilled the Mosaic Covenant. This is not to say that none of the other covenants had a bearing on Peter’s words, but if you stick with me, I think you will understand what I’m attempting to say. There was a very corporate nature to the Mosaic Covenant. It was not with one person, but with an entire nation. The whole community bore the curses and blessings associated with that covenant, and God often used corporate and/or familial language when outlining certain aspects of this agreement. Moses told the people,
Know therefore today, and take it to your heart, that the Lord, He is God in heaven above and on the earth below; there is no other. So you shall keep His statutes and His commandments which I am giving you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may live long on the land which the Lord your God is giving you for all time.
When He was outlining the procedure for the Passover celebration, the Lord said, “And you shall observe this event as an ordinance for you and your children forever.” (Exodus 12:24) We see many instances of this kind of corporate language regarding children and descendants. There are positive cases of entire families being blessed for the righteous deeds of their patriarchs, even as the entire nation seemed to do better when the rulers behaved well. We also see the terrible story of Achan, whose sin resulted in the deaths of 36 Israelites in battle and the stoning of Achan’s whole family, all because of the sin of one man. (Joshua chapter 7) In Ezekiel chapter 18, we see the prophet speak of a coming time when actions would apparently be viewed more individually rather than corporately, but the fact remains that the Mosaic Covenant was very corporate in nature.
Now, we know that the nation of Israel (and Judah after the two divided) failed miserably to uphold the commands in the Mosaic Covenant. As a result, they reaped many of the curses of that covenant. At the time of Christ’s birth, no one had succeeded in fulfilling the Law given to Moses. We know that the life and death of Christ served many purposes, and it would be incorrect to view it merely in terms of the Mosaic Covenant, but neither should we miss the important point that Christ fulfilled this covenant as well.
The Son of God was made Incarnate in human flesh as a Jew. This was no accident. He needed to be Jewish in order to fulfill all of the covenants. He needed to be a descendant of David according to that royal line, and he needed to be part of the covenant community under the Mosaic Law. Thus, Jesus could say, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) Jesus Christ was the only person to fulfill all the requirements of the Mosaic Law, therefore meeting the righteous demands.
There is a fascinating moment in the Gospel of John where we see the chief priests and Pharisees debating about how to respond to the popularity of Jesus. They complained, “If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (11:48) Then comes a prophecy that was never really intended to be made.
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.” Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they planned together to kill Him.
Caiaphas thought Jesus’ death would save the Jewish nation by sparing them the wrath of Rome. However, scripture suggests that Jesus saved the nation by taking upon himself the full covenant curse and becoming the true Passover lamb. By doing so, he not only made it possible for Jews to be forgiven and restored, but also for Gentiles to be brought into the household of God, as Paul wrote.
For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” – in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
By taking upon himself the covenant curse, Christ made it possible for the covenant promises made to all those Old Testament figures to be extended to the Church here and now. This is where it is important to consider what happened on Good Friday. Pontius Pilate gave the crowd the option to have Jesus released, but they chose the thief Barabbas instead.
Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Crucify Him!” And he said, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they kept shouting all the more, saying, “Crucify Him!” When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves.” And all the people said, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!”
This passage makes a lot of people uncomfortable because of the way it has been used by Christians (or at least so-called Christians) to justify anti-Semitism over the years. While there is nothing that can justify anti-Semitism, Matthew’s account here backs up what Peter preached on Pentecost, and both of them were Jews. Pilate presented Jesus to the crowd as “Christ”, the Messiah. Despite this, they called for Him to be crucified. When Pilate protests Jesus’ innocence and washes his hands symbolically, they make the incredible statement, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” (v. 25) They rejected Him as their Messiah and agreed to be complicit in His death as a community. Now, I don’t believe these people understood the full implications of what they were saying, but Jesus made numerous references to the fact that he was being rejected by the nation. Perhaps the most powerful was this parable that he told to a group of people that included some of the chief priests and Pharisees.
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce. The vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them. But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ They took him, and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures,
‘The stone which the builders rejected,
This became the chief corner stone;
This came about from the Lord,
And it is marvelous in our eyes’?
Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.”
Now, the first representatives of the landowner in this parable were the prophets. The son is the Son of God, Jesus Christ. The vine-growers represent the Jewish religious leaders, as it is noted in v. 45 that “they understood that He was speaking about them”. Israel is described in the Old Testament as a vineyard. (Isaiah 5:1-7 and elsewhere) The religious leaders knew this. They understood that Jesus was saying that they had been charged with the spiritual welfare of the nation, but had killed the prophets. Of course, they would eventually kill the Messiah. Thus, God would institute a new era in which “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people”. (Matthew 21:43) This would be Abraham’s descendants by faith, including both Jews and Gentiles.
Therefore, the moment when the crowd essentially takes on Christ’s blood in a corporate manner is in at least one sense symbolic of the curse the whole nation had earned by rejecting God’s commands and His prophets, most especially His Son. Of course, they also contributed directly to His death: a death that He died on their behalf. But the wonderful thing is that this curse does not actually remain for those who are in Christ, because He took the curse upon Himself.
This brings us up to Peter’s statement on Pentecost. He has accused the crowd of putting to death the Messiah. They know this brings upon them a curse. Unlike the hard hearted religious leaders, many of the people listening to Peter realized the gravity of their sin. That is why we are told, “Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37) Indeed, they must have been desperate to know what they could possibly do to make up for killing the Messiah! They must have been in dreadful fear of divine judgment. Fortunately, Peter has some good news for them. There is a way for them to be right with God! Yes, in one sense they killed Jesus, but actually He laid down His life for them. (John 10:11-18)
Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 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.” And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!”
Covenants come with curses and promises, specifically the Mosaic Covenant. The people that day were terrified of falling under a curse. Peter told them that they had a promise. Even as animal sacrifices were made under the Mosaic Law for the forgiveness of sins, Peter tells them now to look to Jesus Christ, their true sacrificial lamb. “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” As proof of this salvation, “…you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (v. 38)
What is remarkable is that the language Peter uses next is almost identical to that used by the angry mob on Good Friday. They had called for Christ’s blood to be “on us and on our children”. (Matthew 27:25) The actual Greek phrase is “hymin kai hymon teknon”. Peter now tells them the promise of salvation is “for you and your children”: “hemas kai epi hemon teknon”. I am not sure whether or not Peter was aware of those terrible words the crowd said at Christ’s condemnation. It is possible, as the Apostle Matthew certainly heard of them. In any case, Peter clearly knew the corporate language of the Mosaic Law and wanted the crowd to know that Jesus, the perfect Passover Lamb, had reversed the curse of the Law.
Notice also that Peter does not stop with them and their children, but says that this salvation was also “for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself”. Therefore, Peter was not preaching a salvation that was reserved for Jews or could only be viewed in the context of the Mosaic Law. Every promise God ever made – whether it was to Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, or to David – was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Israel was meant to serve as a light to the nations. Thanks to the work of Christ, the Gentiles could finally be brought into that covenant community, equal heirs of the New Covenant by faith.
Therefore, Peter told the crowd that day not to continue in the unbelief that had bound so many of their countrymen, but rather to, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” (Acts 2:40) By God’s grace, many of them did repent, and three thousand people were added to the Church. What joy they must have felt to know that even though they had missed the Messiah’s coming and been complicit in His death, they did not carry the burden of guilt, but were forgiven!
We will each come to our own conclusions as to whether or not this passage is teaching greater or lesser continuity between the biblical covenants. That obviously has an effect on how we view baptism. But let us not lose sight of the truly amazing thing that took place for those first Christians on Pentecost. Although they were of God’s chosen people of Israel, they were in essence just as “far off” as the Gentiles. They had failed to keep the Mosaic Law. They were under a curse. They had crucified the Messiah. Yet, instead of a curse, Christ made it possible for them to have a promise. That is the good news of Easter that has the power to change lives.
I must admit that Paul Liberati (probably among others) beat me into print with the observation of this link between Acts 2:39 and Matthew 27:25, though I maintain that I had the idea before reading his article – I swear! He blogs at Heart & Mouth. All scriptures quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.