Isn’t is odd how you can read passages in the Bible, for years, and suddenly see something you had before overlooked? Recently as I was reading through Acts I noticed some reoccurring phrases that for some reason my mind had up to then simply dismissed. Those phrases are, “received his word”, and “received the word of God”. This experience is sort of like detectives I see on TV who work “cold cases”. An ambitious detective will pull the files of an unsolved crime and begin sorting through and analyzing all of the evidence in that file. Many, many times I have either seen on TV or read in the news about some case forgotten long ago that was solved because someone cared enough to give the evidence another critical look and the detective saw something others had overlooked time and time again. I don’t ever remember anyone discussing the appearance of these phrases, “received his word” and “received the word of God”, as they appear in Acts 2, 8, and 11.
Each time they appear they have a specific meaning, and the same meaning, that I think gives the texts some needed context that is not there if they are ignored. The first appears in Acts 2. Every church of Christ member knows part of chapter 2 very well and most Christians know parts of it, but maybe not this part of it.
The setting is a festival in the city of Jerusalem in the first century. It is Pentecost and seven weeks since Jesus rose from the dead. Pentecost was a Jewish holiday/festival celebrating the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. The scene was alive with celebration as people from all across the known world converged on Jerusalem to observe Pentecost, to renew old acquaintances, and likely even to see family. This festival had been celebrated for many years and people knew what to expect, it was a good time! But this year, this Pentecost, things would be very different. They were there to celebrate Law but God was about to lay some Grace on them.
When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples the scene was so boisterous and noisy and the followers of Jesus so out of the ordinary that many people took notice and were sure those men had just had too much wine and were drunk. Not the case! Peter stood up and gave an explanation. “These men aren’t drunk as you think, it’s early in the morning”. He announced that a prophecy was being fulfilled before there very eyes. It as from Joel concerning the coming of the Holy Spirit and the results of that coming. He concluded the quote with these words, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2:21) Then Peter starts preaching about Jesus quoting David and making the case that Jesus had been raised from the dead and was indeed the Christ of God they were looking for. He put the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus squarely on them!
Upon hearing this shocking news, these Jews asked, “What shall we do?” Then comes the familiar text of Acts 2:28, “ 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.” Many people evidently stopped reading there. A doctrine of salvation has been built largely upon this one verse and in the minds of many it trumps all others. As one man recently put it, “Any verse of Scripture that seems to contradict Acts 2:38 is “iffy” “. Well, I suggest that since Peter didn’t stop there we shouldn’t either.
Peter first said “repent”. This is important. “Repent” of what and how? Well, repent of your unbelief! You have rejected Jesus the Christ, the Messiah of God and had him killed, Peter accused them twice of the murder of Jesus. After they were convicted of their sins and convinced of the truth about Jesus (“cut to the heart”) they first needed to repent of their unbelief and believe what Peter had preached. And they did. They “received the Word” Peter preached. Salvation is by grace through faith and these men obviously repented and believed and then were baptized. It is always that order, repentance and faith in Jesus first, and then baptism. The Bible is very clear about this. Notice in Acts 2:41a, “So those who received his word were baptized”. Those who received his word were those who had believed Peter’s preaching, the prophecy of Joel and of David. They had repented of unbelief and had put their faith in the Christ. That is what it means to “receive the Word”.
One other important thing before I leave chapter 2. Peter told those who listened that the promises he gave were to “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39b) . There are two things to take note of in this 2nd chapter of Acts. First, Peter preached to everyone who had ears. And so it is with us. We are to herald the good news about Jesus to anyone and everyone possible. We are to peach to the whole word, every creature! There is no doubt about that. But, what is just as true is that not everyone will repent. Not everyone will “receive the Word”. Not everyone will believe on Christ. Not everyone will be baptized. The ones who will “receive the Word” are those whom the Lord our God calls to himself. Not one more and not one less. This truth is repeated over and over in the Scriptures.
” So those who received his word were baptized..” Acts 2:41a
Now lets look at Acts chapter 8. Phillip travels to Samaria and preaches Christ to the people. And, the Bible says “the crowds with one accord paid attention to what Peter was preaching. There were unclean spirits coming out of people, others were being healed and many believed on the Lord and were baptized. One man was mentioned by name for he was a hard case I suppose, but God saved him too. A man named Simon had the attention of the people for a long time. He practiced magic and people feared him. But he too believed after hearing Phillip preach the kingdom of God and about the Christ. God meets people where they are and saves who he will, the down and out, the rich and the poor at his discretion.
The story continues that when the church leaders at Jerusalem heard that the people of Samaria “had received the word of God” they sent Peter and John to minister to them. It’s the same story as Acts 2. Someone preaches Christ, some repent and believe “receiving the Word”, and are baptized. The narrative is a bit different here in chapter 8 in that the Samaritans did not receive the Holy Spirit until Peter and John came and laid hands on them. So we might not want to be so rigid about using Acts 2:38 as a blanket, once size fits all promise, it clearly isn’t. In Acts 2 Peter preaches, they repent and believe (received the Word) and were baptized and I’m sure they received the Holy Spirit as Peter said. In Acts 8 Phillip preaches, the people believe (receive the Word) and are baptized and don’t receive the Holy Spirit. Then as we will see later in Acts when Peter preached to Cornelius and his folks they too believed and while Peter was preaching Christ they received the Holy Spirit. An unusual set of facts. Why did God do it this way? I don’t have a clue! I only know he did it. What is common in all three cases is that the people heard Christ preached, they “received the word” and were then baptized.
“Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God…” Acts 8:14a
Now to chapter 11. Peter has had a vision, three times, that convinced him that God loved Gentiles as much as Jews and that he should go to them with the gospel. You can read the story in Acts 10. It was after his sermon about Jesus, and after they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit that Peter asked (my paraphrase..) “Can anybody think of a reason why we shouldn’t baptize these people? They received the Holy Spirit just like we did when we believed!” So Peter baptized them. It is worth mentioning that Peter ended his sermon with this sentence. “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43) This was true in Acts 2, in Acts 8, in Acts 10, and in Monroe, Louisiana today. I can think of no reason to try to qualify these words of the Apostle Peter to our ancient ancestors, the first Gentiles to be saved by grace.
The story continues,this was a huge deal! A few days ago a Jew wouldn’t even speak to a Gentile and now they are calling them brothers and baptizing those who believed the gospel. Chapter 11 begins with the apostles and brothers hearing that the Gentiles also “had received the word of God”. There is that phrase once more. The text says “…the Gentiles also had received the word of God”. Also? Yes, the saved Jews, Peter and the other brothers and Apostles were saved the same way as the Gentiles, they “received the Word of God”. They accepted it by believing it!.
In Acts 11:4-17 Peter carefully detailed the story of his going to the Gentiles and what happened when he preached the gospel to them. When Peter finished you could have heard a pin drop. They were completely silent for a time. And then they gave glory to God! That section ends with these words, “And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (vs 18b) Remember earlier how God calls some to himself? He also gives repentance to those he calls. The Bible is clear about this. Some he hardens and some he softens. He is God and can do what he will. It is repentance that leads to life. Unless a person repents of his or her unbelief, receiving the Word by faith, that person will remain alienated from God.
“Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God.” Acts 11:1
We Christians are to publish the Word of God across the world to every person possible. The gracious offer of the gospel from God is addressed to “whosoever will..” Some of those to whom we preach Christ will “receive the Word”, only some of them, not all, will repent of their unbelief. There is someone there, someone yonder, who waits to hear and receive the Word of God. They will not hear until we tell it.