“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
Peter’s Pentecost sermon proved from the Old Testament that Jesus was the Messiah, and God opened the minds of many in his audience to not only believe this, but to see the implications for themselves. Though many of them were not directly involved in Christ’s crucifixion, Peter’s words implicate us all—our sins are the reason He gave His life.
They were convicted and deeply desired to do whatever they could to be forgiven and to change. This is the attitude that God looks for and can work with (Isaiah 66:2). This attitude is the beginning of the conversion process.
Meaning of “cut to the heart”
What did Luke mean in Acts 2:37 when he wrote that the Pentecost crowd was “cut to the heart” by Peter’s bold sermon accusing them (and all of us) of crucifying Christ?
The Greek word translated heart (kardia) has a range of meanings, as it does in English. “The heart of man is his very person; his psychological core. The conscious awareness each of us has that makes us persons and the spiritual dimension of responsiveness or unresponsiveness to God are both expressed by the word ‘heart’” (Zondervan Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, “heart”).
“They were cut” is translated from the Greek word katanyssomai, “to prick, pierce; metaphorically, to pain the mind sharply, agitate it vehemently: used especially of the emotion of sorrow” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). The only place this Greek word is used in the New Testament is here in Acts 2:37.
William Barclay explains, “When people realized just what they had done in crucifying Jesus, their hearts were broken. ‘I,’ said Jesus, ‘when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (John 12:32). Everyone has had a hand in that event” (The New Daily Study Bible, comments on Acts 2:37-41).
And so being “cut to the heart” led them to sorrow, introspection and to ask, “What shall we do?” It brought thousands of people to repentance, baptism and conversion.
“Cut to the heart” cuts two ways
Later in Acts the King James Version and the New King James Version say another group was “cut to the heart” by Stephen’s powerful message, but their response was totally opposite of the response Peter received!
In Acts 7:54, after Stephen’s defense before the council, they were “cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth.” This group allowed their emotions to provoke them to administer the death penalty on Stephen. Instead of recognizing their own sins, as Peter’s audience had, they were infuriated.
Here the phrase “they were cut” is translated from a different Greek word, diaprio, “to saw asunder … to be sawn through mentally” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon).
These two accounts vividly highlight the diametrically opposite responses that can be provoked by the gospel message.
God supplies the message and is the One who leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). How we respond is our choice.
For more about Peter’s powerful sermon, see “The Sermon That Launched the Church.” For more about sin and repentance, see our articles “How to Repent” and “Why Does God Look for a Broken and Contrite Heart?”