by Roger Wyatt | 4th January 2021 | more posts on 'Word Studies'
Photograph: Roger Wyatt. Jerusalem, the southern steps. Perhaps close to the site of the gate called Beautiful where Peter healed a man.
It is unknown whether, in the days that the first disciples waited in the upper room, and prior to the coming of the Holy Spirit, it was usual for individuals to stand up and preach. There certainly was a great deal of prayer (Acts 1:14) and an earnest searching of the scriptures during this time (Acts 1:20); only once is it recorded that ‘Peter stood up among the believers’ (Acts 1:15). However, after the Holy Spirit comes, the text of the Acts of the Apostles reports that, ‘Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd’ (Acts 2:14).
There can be little doubt that Peter’s preaching was elevated to a new level by the outpouring and empowering of the Holy Spirit and it perhaps one of the greatest, and shortest, sermons every preached. It is highly unlikely that Peter prepared his message beforehand, but his grasp of the Hebrew scriptures, the redeeming work of Christ and the ministry of both the Father and the Holy Spirit is evident throughout: ‘Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear’ (Acts 2:33). The shocking “punchline” to the apostle’s extemporizing comes in verse thirty-six: ‘“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah”’. More evidence of the Spirit’s power is revealed in the response of those who heard the inaugural message of the Christian church: ‘When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). The rest is history, so to speak.
The Greek text reads, κατενύγησαν τὴν καρδίαν (katenygesan ten kardian), which when translated literally reads, ‘they were pierced to the heart’. Only once in the entire New Testament is the word katenygesan used, stemming from the verb katanysso; from kata meaning ‘down’, and nysso meaning ‘pierce’ – which when put together translates as ‘pierced all the way down’. It is then, a visceral description of the response to the preaching of Peter that left his hearers disorientated and in need of instant spiritual help – those present had experienced a conviction that was deep, painful and even dreadful. There is only one other verse in the New Testament that perhaps reveals something of a similar experience.
When Jesus is presented in the temple, he is met by the old prophet Simeon, who declares ‘“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too”’ (Luke 2:34-35). Simeon understood that the child in his arms was the promised Messiah and, also, that his coming would expose the thoughts of many. It is an unusual turn of phrase, ‘the thoughts of many will be revealed’, but as if to explain it the prophet adds, ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too’. There can be no other interpretation, Simeon’s prophecy equates the revealing of the thoughts with the piercing of Mary’s soul, or put another way, the thoughts of Mary will also be revealed because of the child Simeon held.
In the end both passages elucidate each other. The verse from Luke 2, although normally interpreted as the pain Mary must suffer over the loss of her firstborn son, contextually infers that Mary, who is so often presented as a sinless woman, must experience the bitter pain of the realisation of her own sin. Indeed, it is the required turning point in the heart of every human being if they are to enter God’s kingdom (Matthew 5:3). Such a realisation, in Acts 2:37, is the work of the Spirit instigated through the preaching of Peter. Similarly, it must have been at some undisclosed moment, that God’s Spirit worked in the heart of Mary to reveal her need of the very son she had given birth to. Indeed, Peter had experienced what his listeners now suffered, and was “cut to the heart” when, kneeling before Christ after the miraculous catch of fish, he cries out: ‘“Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”’ (Luke 5:8).
The passages considered together lead to an unavoidable conclusion. The painful moment in which an individual realises their own sin is being compared to a sword piercing the heart; it is an experience felt at the deepest level in which the motives and thoughts of a person are seen for what they are (Hebrews 4:12). However, despite its pain, it is a creative moment of infinite and eternal importance. Moreover, it is a direct work of the Spirit and is a moment that leads to Peter’s imperative: ‘“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 2:38).