- How we read the scriptures is fundamentally important and determines our understanding of the scriptures. If we read the scriptures with a twenty-first century mindset, we will miss many of the important teachings contained in the Bible because we are not thinking like the audience who received the divine message. This is one reason why the book of Revelation is so misunderstood and regularly taught incorrectly. Too often we think the book is written to us and apply the message to our culture rather than realizing the book was written to a first century audience and applying the message to their culture.
- In the next couple lessons, we are going to look at some key points of scripture and terminology to help us better put ourselves in the mind of the first century audience. In future lessons we will consider the perspective of a typical first century Roman hearing the gospel. This morning we will consider the perspective of a typical first century Jew hearing the gospel.
I. Jesus’ Fulfillment of Prophecy
A. Peter’s sermon
- As most well know, Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 attempts to prove to the Jews that Jesus is the prophesied Messiah. In his sermon, Peter quotes from Psalm 16 in Acts 2:25-28. To grasp the whole context of this part of Peter’s sermon, read Acts 2:22-29. When we go back and read psalm 16, we encounter some trouble dealing with how Peter is able to apply these words as prophecy to the coming Messiah.
- Notice how many times the first person is used in this psalm of David: “I saw the Lord always before me.” “He is at my right hand that I may not be shaken.” “My tongue rejoiced.” “My flesh also will dwell in hope.” “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades.” “You have made known to me the paths of life.” Throughout the psalm, David was referring to himself. The only part that breaks away from the first person in this quotation is the statement, “…or let your Holy One see corruption.” Here David speaks of the third person “Holy One,” and not in the first person. But as anyone knows who has studied Hebrew parallelism, the first line of a couplet is amplified by the second couplet. This couplet is saying the same thing using a form of Hebrew poetry: “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades or let your Holy One see corruption.” David is still speaking of himself. In fact, as you know from our study of the psalms, David repeatedly used this kind of language to speak about his hope that God would continue to preserve him.
- We also must question if this psalm in its original context was speaking of a resurrection. David speaks similarly throughout the psalms. Consider Psalm 30:2-3, “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.” Psalm 18, 28, 40, 49, 86, 116, 143 and many others psalms use this type of language. There is nothing in the psalm that demands an understanding of a physical resurrection. Again, this psalm is speaking about the king’s preservation by the hand of God. These words are not teaching in the context of the psalm that the king was resurrected.
- So how can we explain Peter’s application of Psalm 16 to the Messiah as one who would be resurrected from the dead? This interpretation of Peter does not seem at all to be the original message of psalm 16. Before we think that Peter was the only one who did this, consider that Paul also quoted Psalm 16 in Acts 13 and made the same application to the resurrection of the Messiah. Did the apostles simply take liberties with the scriptures and make them apply the words however they wanted?
B. Common suggestions
- Scholars have come up with many suggestions to deal with this problem. Some answer this problem by simply saying that the apostles were inspired and that ends the discussion. While it is certainly true that the apostles were inspired, as we argued and proved in our previous lessons, this is not a good basis of argument. I do not believe that the Jews on the day of Pentecost were to believe Peter’s application of Psalm 16 simply on the basis of his being inspired.
- Others have taught that David was thinking of his and the Messiah’s resurrection. The view simply asserts that David’s words are a single, generic statement. The view says that David was speaking of his own resurrection that would happen one day in the final judgment, but also spoke of a Messianic resurrection. However, this argument also falls short of the satisfaction we need for concerning Peter’s application of these words. There is nothing generic about these words. David is clearly speaking of himself about how he would not be abandoned by God but would continue to be preserved by God.
- Yet others believe the best answer is to teach that the Old Testament’s full meaning only becomes clear with later revelation. This is certainly a true point which we find in Acts 1:20 concerning the need for an apostle to be chosen to replace Judas. But this answer also does not explain how Jews would have accepted Peter’s explanation of Psalm 16 that, in its context, does not appear Messianic nor speaking about the Messiah’s resurrection.
- Finally, others have begun to teach that the New Testament uses the hermeneutic techniques of the Jews. There is nothing wrong with this idea. However, what is being taught is that the Jews simply applied a fanciful form of exegesis. That is, the Jews made these prophecies fit however they needed them to fit so that Jesus would be the Messiah and fulfill prophecy.
- Phil Roberts states the problem well: “We often feel embarrassed when attempting to “justify” the hermeneutical practices of the New Testament. Perhaps the real hermeneutical problem is the difficulty of fully participating in the first century view of Scripture.” I believe this is our problem in understanding the Old and the New Testaments. We are having difficulty viewing the scriptures with the mind of the original audience. In this case in Acts 2, the original audience is the Jews on the day of Pentecost.
C. Jewish exegesis
- We need to understand how the Jews interpreted the scriptures if we are going to fully understand the argument that Peter is making in Acts 2. The following is a list of premises the Jews had when interpreting the scriptures.
- First, the Old Testament scriptures were inspired of God. In our series “Is the Bible the Word of God,” we have gone to great lengths to prove this very truth to ourselves. The Jews believed this fundamental premise also. Therefore, the scriptures are one book given by God to the people.
- Second, the Old Testament scriptures speak to every generation, with special relevance for “the end time.” Since the scriptures are the word of God, then the scriptures are timeless. The scriptures spoke to every generation that would come along and read the word of God. Further, the scriptures have special relevance to the time of the coming of the Messiah, otherwise called the “last days” or “end time.”
- Third, context gives words their meaning. The same words, read in a new context, might state another true point. To understand this point, we need to recognize this truth in our own culture. Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner during the War of 1812. Those words had a special meaning to those people at that time in the context of that war. However, the song has a different but related meaning to soldiers today who have fought in recent wars. The words “the bombs bursting in air” does not call to their minds the war of 1812 but the war they just fought in.
- Similarly, we know the P.P. Bliss penned the song “It Is Well With My Soul” as upon the knowledge of losing his family at sea. The despair and loss of his family on a ship sinking was the context and meaning of the song. However, today the song has a different meaning to us, though related, about how God can carry us through whatever losses we may endure.
- A modern song by Mark Alan Springer in his song “One Boy, One Girl” really shows this point.
One Boy, One Girl
(Mark Alan Springer/Shaye Smith)
He finally gave in to his friend’s girlfriend
When she said, “there’s someone you should meet”
At a crowded restaurant way cross town
He waited impatiently
When she walked in their eyes met
and they both stared
And right there and then everyone else disappeared but
One boy, one girl, two hearts beating wildly
To put it mildly it was love at first sight
He smiled, she smiled, and they knew right away
This was the day they’d waited for all their lives
And for a moment the whole world revolved
Around one boy and one girl
In no time at all they were standing there
In the front of a little church
In front of their friends and family
Repeating those sacred words
Preacher said, “son kiss your bride”
and he raised her veil
Like the night they met time just stood still
He was holding her hand when the doctor looked up and grinned
- Notice how the words to the chorus never changed words, but the meaning changed based on the context. First the words “one boy, one girl” spoke about a boyfriend and girlfriend falling in love and getting married. Then, the words “one boy, one girl” referred to their children. This is what we mean when we say that context gives words their meaning.
D. Jewish Procedure
- With these three premises, the Jewish procedure of interpreting the scriptures was twofold. First, look at an Old Testament statement in more than just its original context. The scripture would have meaning to every generation because it is the word of God.
- Second, ask what truth an Old Testament statement might express if read in another divinely-revealed context. The psalms were particularly useful concerning this procedure. When the psalmist spoke of the preservation of the king, each king would read that psalm and apply it to themselves, not just David who penned the psalm. The psalms had many potential contexts as each king would rise up and lead the nation.
- But we must also remember the second premise of Jewish exegesis: the scriptures speak to every generation, with special relevance for “the end time.” Therefore, the Jews already understood that these prophecies had special importance to the nature of the Messiah and his kingdom. The Jews did not expect the Messiah to come and die, but to live and rule forever in his kingdom. Statements in the psalms concerning the preservation of the life of the king were understood by the Jews to be applied to the immortality of the Messiah. The greatest king of all for the Jews would be the Messiah who would reign forever. Psalm 21:4 amplifies this point: “He asked You for life, and You gave it to him—length of days forever and ever.” Therefore, as the Jews read psalm 16, there was nothing earth-shattering or unusual about the idea that the Messiah would not see decay nor be abandoned to the grave. The Jews already believed in the immortality of the Messiah.
II. Understanding the Gospel
A. The point of Peter’s sermon
- As we come back to Acts 2:22-30, consider the argument Peter is really making to the Jews at Pentecost. The Jews knew that David was dead and his grave was still with them. The Jews did not think that David’s tomb was empty. The question was: could Jesus fulfill these words? Could Jesus fulfill the words that he would not be abandoned in the grave or see corruption?
- The point of Peter’s sermon is to show that Jesus fulfilled these words, but not in the way that any of the Jews ever expected. Rather than be the Messiah that never saw death, the Messiah would die and be raised from the dead three days later. Jesus proved himself to be the Messiah by fulfilling these words in the most unexpected way. Peter is not teaching that Psalm 16 is Messianic rather than Davidic. The Jews applied Psalm 16 to David when he was alive and to the coming the Messiah. Peter was teaching that the Jews should apply the words of Psalm 16 to Jesus because he is the Messiah. Jesus is the immortal Messiah because he rose from the dead. Death could not hold him.
B. The Jews and death
- As we conclude, it is important to understand what Jews understand concerning death and the need for three days. The Jews understood death to be a process. The separation of spirit and body was a process that was completed after three days. Consider the words from the Jews themselves:
- “People give testimony to the identity of a corpse only through the features of the face…and one may give testimony only within three days of death, beyond which point the face is disfigured” (Yeb. 16:3 of the Mishnah). “For all of the three days the soul hovers above the body, thinking that it will be able to return to it. When it sees that the face of the body has changed with decomposition the body has changed with decomposition it gives up and leaves. After three days the belly splits spewing its contents upon his face…” (M.Q. 82b of the Jerusalem Talmud).
- This is the significance of the need for three days. To the Jews, the process of death (the separation of the spirit from the body) was completed. For Jesus to rise from the dead three days later was the ultimate proof to the Jews that Jesus had conquered death. The tomb was empty, Jesus was alive, and fulfilled the Messianic prophecy of being the immortal king of Israel.
- Luke 24:44-46 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 are making the emphasis that Jesus raised from the dead after three days of death. This is the significance of Jesus waiting three full days before coming to raise Lazarus from the dead in John 11. It is explains why Martha says to Jesus that if he had been there, Lazarus would not have died. She is saying that if Jesus had come a day sooner, it would have been possible for Lazarus to be brought back to life. But since three days have passed, the death process has completed and the spirit cannot be brought back into the body. Jesus waits three days to show his power over death by raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus waits three days to show his power of death when he raised himself from the dead.
- Jesus’ ability to conquer death showed he was the prophesied Messiah of the Old Testament. The Messiah was to be the immortal king. Jesus proved himself to be the immortal Son of God through the resurrection.