This is the second major sermon in the early church. Like the first one, it was occasioned by a miraculous event, in this case the healing of a beggar who had been crippled since birth. “While the beggar held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade.”
While Peter and John and the other apostles had done other miracles after Pentecost (2:43), this one drew a huge crowd, “all the people,” that is, all the Jews who hadn’t responded to Peter’s Pentecost sermon. This was their second chance to join the 3000 who had repented and been baptized on Pentecost. Thus, it has a sense of urgency, a sharply worded boldness, and a fuller explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
People who are weary of the church’s incessant arguing about theology sometimes yearn for the “simple message of the early church.” That’s understandable, but this sermon is anything but simple. Like the other recorded sermons, this one explains the event that drew the crowd together, confronts them with their sin, proclaims the centrality of the risen Christ using the Old Testament to elucidate who he was, calls sinners to repent and turn to God, and shows the deeper meaning of the work of Christ. (Cf. Acts 2, 4, 10 and 13 for the other messages.) There is much for contemporary preachers to learn from Peter.
The first thing that strikes me here is the way Peter deflects attention from himself and John. This whole thing is not about them. In fact, he is almost outraged that the people are focusing on himself. “Men of Israel, why do you stare at us as if by our own power and godliness we had made this man walk?” All of us are susceptible to the lure of fame. We don’t want to be simply liked and accepted; we want to be loved, even adored. Peter was a big man who naturally took the lead, but there is no hint of “I” in his message. He directed all attention to Jesus.
Indeed, that was his message in a nutshell to these “men of Israel.” “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers has glorified his servant Jesus.” The end point of that sentence is the main point of any Christian sermon. That sentence is not only ingenious; it is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
For example, note how Peter both connects with his hearers and connects Old Testament and New by calling God, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers.” Peter is saying in effect, “I’m not talking about some strange new god here; I’m talking about our God, the One True God who has revealed himself to us Jews. And you can’t really understand the New Testament without understanding the Old. The whole Bible is about one thing—the One God focusing his work of salvation on Jesus.”
Again, note how Peter emphasizes both the humiliation and exaltation of Christ in 4 words—”glorified his servant Jesus.” On the one hand, Jesus was just a servant, a humble peasant who died a humiliating death. On the other hand, he was the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, whom God has glorified in his resurrection, ascension and session at God’s right hand. The rest of Peter’s sermon explains both that humiliation and exaltation.
Jesus’ deepest humiliation came at the hands of his fellow Jews, who “disowned” him. Peter does not mince words in naming sin and sinners here, so much so that it might make us uncomfortable. This business of directly blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death has historically been the root of terrible anti-Semitism that has no place in the church.
So, it’s important to note how Peter is not anti-Semitic. He does not condemn these people for being Jewish; he himself is Jewish. He blames them for their sin, and he offers them complete forgiveness for that sin. “You killed the author of life…. [if you repent and turn to God] your sins [will be] wiped out (verse 19).” Their sin of disowning Jesus Christ is not a permanent blot on the name of the Jews; it is a sin that has been completely forgiven for all who repent and believe. But Peter knows that a sin must be named and a sinner must be convicted of that sin before repentance and faith will come. Thus, he is hard on sin.
The climax of this part of the sermon comes in verse 15. “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witness of this.” This is how God glorified his servant Jesus—by raising him from the dead after these folks had killed him. That’s the heart of the Gospel. If Jesus was not physically raised by God, then he is still a dead man, however great he may have been. He lies in the ignominy of the grave. But, good news, God glorified that man by raising him from the dead. We saw it and heard it.
Having established who Jesus is, Peter returns to the miracle that had drawn this crowd together—“this man whom you see and know was made strong.” It wasn’t “our power or godliness” that made this cripple walk; it was Jesus who did it. Our only role was to have faith, faith in Jesus name, the faith that comes though Jesus. Once again, it’s all about Jesus, the Jesus whom you disowned and killed but whom God glorified by raising from the dead.
Then, in a gracious move that puts the lie to anti-Semitism, Peter seems to let them off the hook. “Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.” You didn’t know that the Christ had to suffer. You had pictured a victorious Christ defeating his enemies with power. So, when you crucified him, you didn’t know what you were doing (as Christ had prayed from the cross).
But you could have known, should have known, because God had foretold a suffering Christ through all the prophets. What you just did “is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.” You acted in ignorance, but that’s no excuse. It doesn’t let you off the hook.
Rather, it calls you to “repent and turn to God.” That’s the only thing sinners have to do, even those who committed the worst sin possible. Just do a complete U turn, turn from your sin and turn to God. Here, the word “repent” is metanoia, which means to change your mind completely. Specifically, change your mind about Jesus—you looked at him all wrong, you hated him, and you intended to kill him. So, change your view of him, your feelings about him, and your purpose with respect to him. Accept him as the Risen Messiah, love him with all your heart, and decide to make him your Lord and Savior. By doing that, you are turning to the God who sent him. Turn to God in Christ. And you will be saved.
Here’s what salvation will look like. First of all, your sins, even this great one, will be wiped out. God will never hold it against you, will pardon you, will erase it from your record, will never bring it up again, will forget it ever happened. If God does that, the church dare not hold it against the Jews.
But salvation in Christ involves much more than individual forgiveness. Or more accurately, forgiveness will produce “times of refreshing,” a new lease on life. This was already happening for the 3000 who had converted at Pentecost. They were experiencing a whole new life in the community of the redeemed described in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35. Already the hard life dominated by the principalities and powers of sin and Satan and death and the Empire was being replaced by the fresh life of the Kingdom ruled by the Risen Christ.
That new life would one day come on the whole world. Verses 20-26 aren’t part of our reading, but they should be, because the work of the Risen Christ is bigger than individual forgiveness and the creation of a new community. One day, the Lord will once again “send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. For now, he must remain in heaven, until the time comes for God to restore everything as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”
We see a foretaste of that restoration in the healing of the crippled beggar. But God has promised more, much more. And God will keep his promise when Jesus returns. God’s ancient promise to Abraham, the promise to bless the whole world through Abraham’s offspring—that world embracing promise will come true when Jesus Christ returns.
Not such a simple sermon, is it? It’s all there, the basis for all the theology developed by the church in later years: Old Testament and New, old prophecies fulfilled and new ones made, the person of Jesus as the Christ, the stern denunciation of sin and the strong call to repent, salvation individual and worldwide, the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of all things, Christ in heaven now and returning later. At the center of it all is this message—“The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… glorified his servant Jesus by raising him from the dead.” That’s the message that changed the world back then and will do so again today.
The anti-Semitism that many have found in this text is but one example of the sin of Adam and Eve after their original sin—the sin of blaming others for the very things we do. That lovely old hymn, “Ah, Holy Jesus, How Have You Offended,” places the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion squarely where it belongs. “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon you? It was my treason, Lord, that has undone you. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I was it was denied you; I crucified you.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 18, 2021
Acts 3:12-19 Commentary