Ignorant of our ignorance

Sometimes, we have no idea what we’re saying. Words come out of our mouths, but we don’t understand their full implication.

Sometimes, we have no idea what we’re doing. We may be acting out of assumptions and prejudices we didn’t even know we had. We’re responding to forces we don’t recognize and can’t name.

I think, for example, of Caiaphas the high priest. Jesus had just raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. His popularity was soaring, which prompted much hand-wringing among the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. In response, Caiaphas arrogantly proclaimed, “You don’t know anything! You don’t see that it is better for you that one man die for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed” (John 11:49-50, CEB). As John wryly comments, it’s Caiaphas who didn’t know what he was saying, who didn’t realize that he was prophesying why Jesus had to die (vss. 51-52). 

Caiaphas, in other words, was ignorant of his ignorance. He was so focused on the rightness of his desire to do away with Jesus that he could see neither the significance of Jesus’ miracles nor how Jesus’ ministry fit the bigger picture of God’s intentions.

Sadly, there is nothing in the gospels to suggest that he ever saw the error of his ways. But happily, the book of Acts tells us of others who recognized and repented of similar ignorance.

That is, with a little help from the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the apostle Peter.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Peter quoted from the prophet Joel to awaken the hope and capture the attention of the crowd that surrounded the apostles at Pentecost. The last line of that quotation — “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21, CEB) — pointed forward to the offer of salvation through Jesus.

But first, he had to help the crowd understand who Jesus was. He didn’t mince words:

Jesus the Nazarene was a man whose credentials God proved to you through miracles, wonders, and signs, which God performed through him among you. You yourselves know this. In accordance with God’s established plan and foreknowledge, he was betrayed. You, with the help of wicked men, had Jesus killed by nailing him to a cross. (Acts 2:22-23)

They knew the miracles Jesus had done. Who didn’t? These clearly were not the works of a mere mortal, but of God. Yet they betrayed him, handing him over to the Romans to be crucified. Perhaps they, like Caiaphas, in ignorance, thought in some way that they were doing the right thing. But the bloodguilt was still theirs. They might as well have wielded the hammer themselves.

None of this caught God by surprise; it was all part of the plan. Death couldn’t hold Jesus, Peter proclaimed: “God raised him up” (Acts 2:24). And for the second time in his sermon, Peter turned to prophecy to give his hearers the big picture.

This time, instead of Joel, he turned to King David and the Psalms. In Psalm 16, David had written eloquently about the blessings of the life of holiness, of taking refuge in the one true God. “That’s why my heart celebrates and my mood is joyous,” he wrote. “Yes, my whole body will rest in safety because you won’t abandon my life to the grave; you won’t let your faithful follower see the pit” (vss. 9-10). 

But, Peter argued, David died, right? We know where his grave is. He wasn’t saying that he himself would never die. Rather, he remembered that God had promised to put one of his descendants on the throne (cf. Ps 132:11); thus he must have been speaking prophetically about the resurrection of Jesus, to which we are all witnesses. And David wasn’t the one who ascended to heaven; Jesus was, all the way to sit at God’s right side. And he has sent his Spirit just as he promised. That’s what you’re seeing today!

Peter then turned to Psalm 110:1: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right side, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet (Acts 2:34-35). Jesus himself had spoken those words during the final days of his life (Matt 22:41-46). It was the climactic moment of his debates in the temple courts with his opponents, after which they all gave up trying to stump him with their questions.

Peter, no doubt, remembered that moment. But in his own sermon, he didn’t reproduce Jesus’ argument. Quoting the psalm was enough to cement a connection between David’s messianic prophecy and the ascension of Jesus. To Peter, the conclusion was inescapable: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36), both the rightful heir to the throne of David and the promised Messiah.

As we’ll see, Peter’s hearers couldn’t escape the conclusion either. Their ignorance had been revealed, and they were ready to do something about it.