Last Sunday and this Sunday (Easter Sundays II & III), the lectionary readings from Acts dip us into a very neat sequence of events that transpired in the first weeks of the Church, giving us some helpful models of what it means to be a witness of Christ. I thought it’d be good (since I’ve not written anything in here in over week) to jot down some of my more coherent thoughts in uniting these two Sunday readings into one summary narrative.
Acts 3:1-11 ~ the Initial Encounter
Peter & John are off to the Temple to pray the 3:00 Office (a Jewish precursor to the Christian daily office), and they come across a crippled beggar at the gate who asks them for money. They don’t have any, but offer him healing in the name of Jesus, at which point the man leaps up and causes quite the scene with rejoicing. People notice, people ask questions, and Peter & John are the center of attention.
Acts 3:12-26 ~ Peter’s First Speech
(I didn’t analyze the entire speech, just through verse 20, so forgive me if you were hoping for more commentary than I’ll offer here.)
v12-13a: Peter explains what they’d done, and emphasize that they didn’t perform the miraculous healing themselves, but God had done it in order to glorify the name of Jesus. This is just one example in the Bible of this fact, reminding us that the entire ministry of the Church – our spiritual gifts, our entire lives – must be done for God’s glory also. We cannot claim any credit nor seek fame; we live for Christ.
v13b: Peter explains who Jesus is – the guy that his audience had gotten executed roughly two months ago. In particular, he reminds them that Pilate was going to let Jesus go free, had they not insisted. As Jesus had said to Pilate, “they are guilty of the greater sin.”
v14: What’s worse, they even preferred receiving Barabbus back instead of Jesus. They literally disowned God, since Jesus was the King of the Jews, and they instead proclaimed “we have no king but Caesar!”
v15: But Jesus did not just die, he was also resurrected, and Peter makes a point of identifying himself (and the other apostles) as eye-witnesses. Now, we are not first-hand witnesses of the resurrection, and the non-believers in our midst are not the original crowd who pushed to get Jesus executed, but we have received the eye-witness account of the resurrection (and indeed the entire gospel message), and the sins of the whole word are what ultimately nailed Christ to the cross, so we can still learn from these verses: we cannot escape the reality of our sinful human nature.
v16: Peter describes the man’s healing as having been accomplished through Jesus’ Name with faith in Him. It’s tempting to take this as some sort of magic formula – there have been Christians, churches, and even whole denominations that misapply this verse to make the heretical claim that “if you’re not healed, you don’t have enough faith!” The formula-like description of this verse must be read in balance with verse 13a: all miracles are done to glorify Christ. We cannot manipulate and control the Holy Spirit. We can, however, be open and receptive to the ministry He wants to carry out in us and through us, including miraculous healings.
v17: The Jews had Jesus killed “in their ignorance.” Ignorance does not excuse sin, but it does highlight the very real possibility of change. Peter will get to this in verse 19.
v18: First, Peter shows why they should not have been ignorant: the entire Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) foretells the entire gospel of Christ! This assertion is also supported by Jesus in Luke 24:26-7 and 24:45-47.
v19-20: This where Peter offers them a chance to escape their ignorance. Repentance toward God yields the wiping out of sin, which yields refreshment from God. Peter’s witness of Christ (explaining the miracle and sharing what he knows about Jesus) led straight into preaching the gospel. Now, witnessing and preaching are two different things, but what Peter does here is run the two together in a neat fashion.
Acts 4:1-7 ~The First Response
The Priests then have Peter and John arrested, because they don’t approve of all this Jesus nonsense. The next day, they assemble a group of respected Jewish teachers, Priests, the High Priests, and such, and bring Peter & John in for questioning.
Acts 4:8-12 ~ Peter’s Second Speech
v9-10: Peter basically just repeats what he said before – healing is a miracle wrought by God for the glory of Christ Jesus.
v11-12: Peter now repeats (and summarizes) the gospel message he’d proclaimed before. If anything, it’s even more intense than before, because he quotes Psalm 118:22 (in verse 11) and emphasizes that salvation is in Christ alone.
It’s important for us to notice that after being arrested for witnessing & preaching, Peter did not back off in the message he proclaimed. The truth of Christ is more important than our comfort, our safety, or even our lives. When our witness to the gospel faces backlash (be it mockery, social stigma, or actual persecution), we need to have the integrity to stick to our guns and not compromise. (Of course, there’s nothing wrong with re-evaluating how we present our witness to the world. Peter, afterall, did address the two crowds differently.)
Acts 4:13-18 ~ The Second Response
The Sanhedrin (the Jewish court) is far from convinced by Peter’s testimony. However, they recognize that what Peter’s talking about has gotten the crowds really excited, and they cannot deny the reality of the miraculous healing. So the best they can do is ask Peter and John to shut up and stop talking about that Jesus guy.
This is an interesting response, probably the most like what we get in our current culture. It’s neither overwhelmingly positive (winning over the religious elite of the culture), nor overwhelmingly negative (getting Peter & John martyred), but rather it’s in between (a restraining order). Our society pushes us to be quiet about our faith, in the name of religious peace and tolerance. How we might handle that is modeled by Peter in the next few verses.
Acts 4:19-22 ~ Peter’s Closing Words
Who do we obey, human authority or God? How can we not share what we know about our Creator, our King, our Savior? We need to acknowledge openly “what we have seen and heard.” For sure, this will look very different according to the situation. In some places and professions it is practically illegal to display our faith openly, such as for school teachers. This begs the question, do we need words to be witnesses to the gospel? Eventually, yes, for Jesus is the Word of God, but our very lives can be silent witnesses too. There’s a time for “go out into all the world and preach the gospel,” and a time for simply saying “come and see.”