Acts 5:17-33

Click here to read the passage.

This is a marvellous story, especially when read carefully. The context is the apostles being extolled for their miraculous acts of healing and the church growing as a result. Opposition comes in the form of the Sadducean high priest and his community, who would not like to hear about the resurrection of Jesus. Sadducees were generally members of the upper class, often social and political leaders, and did not believe in the immortality of the soul or any kind of afterlife. Having heard the teaching of the apostles and seen the way the people were drinking it up, along with healing that symbolised resurrection life, they arrested the apostles and put them in prison to stop them. But the apostles are released by an angel who tells them to go back to the temple and continue speaking about life, resurrection life, which they do.

The next scene is intended to be amusing and reminds me a little bit of Jesus’ resurrection, when he disappeared from the tomb. When the high priest, Sanhedrin, and Jewish council send to get the apostles out of the prison for examination, they cannot be found. The prison is locked up securely and the guards are at the doors, but there is no one inside. The captain of the temple (that is, the chief of the Levites who kept guard in the temple) and the priests are, shall we say, flabbergasted. This word was used previously of Herod regarding the ministry of Jesus and the apostles (Luke 9:7), and then of the Jews who heard the disciples speaking in many different languages during Pentecost (Acts 2:12). What is going on? Suddenly someone appears to tell them that the apostles are teaching the people in the temple – precisely what they were told not to do in the previous chapter.

The temple captain and his officers go to fetch them from the temple but are afraid to use force in case the crowd rises up against them. The high priest reminds them that they were commanded not to teach about Jesus, but they respond very similarly as they had done in 4:1-21. Essentially, the message is once again: “You killed Jesus. God raised and exalted Jesus as leader and saviour, for repentance and forgiveness. We have seen this. God gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey him. We are obeying him in speaking about it.”

The high priest is associated with death: stoning (v26), blood (v28), and rage that leads to a desire to kill (v33). The apostles, on the other hand, are associated with life. The reader or hearer is being asked: Which side do you want to be on? Death or life? 

Prayer: God, in a context that is filled with death and people who don’t believe in you and the reward you promise, I choose life. Help me to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and be transformed by that vision of reality. Fill me with your Spirit and so enable me to speak boldly about you.

Acts 5:12-16

Click here to read the passage.

These verses are another summary section describing the growth of the church (cf 2:42-27; 4:32-35), but with an added element of miraculous healing. 

There is a word here which Luke obviously likes: homothumadon. He used it in Acts 1:14; 2:46; 4:24, now here, and another six times to come. Elsewhere in the New Testament this word is used only once (Rom 15:6). It is a compound word, joining homo (meaning ‘same’) and thumos, which usually means ‘passion’. “In one accord” or “with one mind” hardly conveys the power of this word. The disciples are united in their hearts’ desire.

Luke singles out the apostles as those doing the signs and wonders; ‘the others’ did not dare or presume to join them in this ministry. It became such big news that people carried the sick out onto the streets and into the plazas in hope that Peter would merely walk past, that even his shadow might heal them. Not only was it local news, but from the surrounding towns also, people brought the sick and people harassed by evil spirits. And they were healed. The picture is similar to that painted in the Gospel, when crowds come to Jesus for healing (eg Lk 6:17-19).

The apostles were thus held in high esteem (literally the text says the people ‘extolled’ or ‘magnified’ them). I am reminded of the honour which Thai people still give to the early missionaries who first worked among them in the 19th century, bringing modern education and medicine. Can modern missionaries join this legacy through acts of healing and liberation which bring transformation? We may not be able to do supernatural miracles, but still many people speak of the kindnesses performed by Christians as that which first drew them to seek Jesus. Is this the way that people will be added to the church, multitudes of both men and women, as they receive healing and deliverance? Of course, just as we have been reading over the last few weeks, such acts were not performed in a vacuum of words, but with repeated preaching and teaching about the resurrection of Jesus (cf Acts 5:20-21), the ultimate example of healing.

Prayer: Lord, I pray with all my heart and passion that your church would grow. May I be an agent of healing and liberation, so that people are attracted not to me, but to you. May your message of life go out to all the world.

Acts 4:32 – 5:11

Click here to read the passage.

The very first sentence of this passage just blows me away: “The full number of the believers were of one heart and soul”. Can you imagine if the contemporary church were like this? In fact, that was what Jesus prayed for in John 17:20-23. But we see our churches suffering divisions and strife, sometimes church against church, and even whole denominations pitted against one another. The only application I can see here is simply to join with Jesus in prayer that the church be one!

However, the following narrative about sharing all things in common reveals that things were not always perfect in the first church. Verse 32 and 34-35 seem to indicate that everyone was on board with the communal idea. There was no-one needy, they shared everything, resources were fairly and evenly distributed. Joseph Barnabas (whom we will meet again in Acts) is given as an example. But immediately following is another less positive example: Ananias and Sapphira were half-hearted. They sold their property and gave the proceeds to the apostles, yes, but not all the proceeds. And Sapphira even lied directly about it. The judgment on them was immediate and filled the people who heard about it with fear.

I cannot look down on Ananias and Sapphira because I have done the same kind of things. I have been half-hearted in my commitment, especially to the poor. I give something to make myself feel like I am doing right and part of the community, but I am withholding plenty for myself. I have lied too, just like Sapphira, many times. In some instances it seems I have experienced a temporal punishment for my misdeeds, but for most it seems so far I have gotten off scot-free. I thank God that when he looks upon me on the Day of Judgment, he will see only the good of Jesus. It is not a matter of weighing up good versus bad deeds, as the Buddhists do. Just one rotten ingredient spoils the whole curry so that it has to be thrown away. It was right for the church to fear the judgment of God on evil, even a ‘small evil’, and a tiny sin is enough for us to take refuge in the cross too.

There is one verse in this passage I have not yet mentioned, and as it involves ‘great grace’ it seems appropriate to include it here. Verse 33 states that the apostles continued giving testimony about, or bearing witness to, the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. It hardly bears pointing out that every sermon in Acts refers to the resurrection. We should not preach Jesus without including this. I think sometimes we get bogged down in the cross and the forgiveness of sins, as if that’s all that matters. But the apostles’ message was that Jesus not only died, he also rose again. Paul would say that “he was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). That is, the resurrection is crucial for restoring our relationship with God. Without Jesus’ resurrection we are still dead in our sins. What great grace it truly is!

Prayer: Thank you for the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Thank you that it brings me life, even though I deserve death as a result of my many sins, small and great. I have sinned against you, Lord, in thought, word, and deed, and in what I have failed to do. But your grace is amazing! Help me offer that grace to others too, and to always bring healing instead of hurt in the church. May we Christians be one, Father, as Jesus prayed, so that the world may know that you love them.

Acts 4:23-31

Click here to read the passage.

Having been released from the presence of the Sanhedrin, Peter and John go straight to their friends – the text actually says ‘their own’ – presumably the other disciples, who are gathered together, possibly in the upper room, and tell them what the chief priests and elders had said. 

The group then turns to God in corporate prayer. They address God as ruler (despot!) and acknowledge him as creator of all, also noting that everything that has happened and will happen are according to his wish and foreknowledge. They also attribute David’s Psalm 2 to God, confirming divine inspiration of the Scripture, whereby God’s word comes through the mouth (or pen) of humans.

The verses quoted are shown to be fulfilled once more in what happened to Jesus. Jesus is seen as the anointed king, against whom are set the kings (Herod) and rulers (Pontius Pilate) of the land. Interestingly, even the peoples (note the plural) of Israel (high priests and Sadducees) are included as antagonists, along with the Gentiles/nations, in the disciples’ interpretation of the psalm. The point is, once more, that what happened to Jesus was planned and anticipated by God at least a thousand years prior.

The disciples are not surprised that the pattern continues with Jesus’ followers, as seen in what happened to Peter and John. The reaction to them, too, is one of anger, antagonism, and threats. But the disciples show no fear, knowing that all who take refuge in the son will be blessed (Ps 2:12). Instead of hiding from the authorities, as they did when Jesus was crucified, they ask the Lord for boldness in speaking his word, and that he will continue to work miracles and signs in the name of Jesus.

The prayer is answered immediately: the disciples are all filled with the Holy Spirit and speak the word of God boldly. The verb forms are noteworthy: ‘filled’ is a simple past tense action but ‘speak’ is a past continuous action. This is at least the second time the original disciples were filled with the Spirit (cf Acts 2:4) and for Peter it is at least the third time (cf Acts 4:8). It would appear that being filled with the Holy Spirit, at least in Luke’s writing, is something that happens repeatedly. Its result is not signs and wonders, however (which they ask the Lord to do), but ongoing bold proclamation.

After yesterday’s sense of conviction – why do I not have the boldness of Peter? – these verses are encouraging. I just need to ask! The disciples themselves asked for boldness to speak the word of God; it did not necessarily come naturally to them. They didn’t ask for protection from the religious leaders; they didn’t ask for more of the Spirit; they didn’t ask for ability to perform signs and wonders. More importantly, they acknowledged God’s sovereignty and power, even in the face of opposition. “The one enthroned in heaven laughs” (Ps 2:4) is what we need to remember when people shake their fist in God’s face.

Prayer: God, you are the creator of all things, and you know all things. Help me to trust you, even when things seem to be going wrong. Give me confidence in you, because you are Lord of all.

Acts 4:13-22

Click here to read the passage.

Now Luke brings us into the minds of the Jewish elders, to view Peter and John through their eyes. Verses 13-14 are actually one long sentence which describe the scene: (1) Observing the boldness of Peter and John, (2) realizing that they were uneducated simple men, (3) the elders were amazed as they recognized that the disciples had been with Jesus, (4) seeing the man who had been healed standing with them – (5) they had nothing to say in response. In other words, the elders are shocked speechless and have no idea how to respond. 

They send Peter and John and the healed man out of the meeting while they consider together what to do. It cannot be denied that a clear sign has occurred through Jesus’ disciples and everyone who lives in Jerusalem knows about it. But the elders don’t want this information to spread any further among the people. (This is an interesting parallel to the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, another sign which the disciples were commanded to testify about from Jerusalem to Judea and the world beyond.) The elders therefore decide to threaten – not ‘warn’ as most modern translations have it – them so that they do not speak in Jesus’ name to anyone. The Greek is clear: no longer speak to no one.

When they bring Peter and John in to command them not to utter a single word nor teach in the name of Jesus, the disciples’ response shows they are still operating in the boldness of the Spirit: “We cannot not speak about the things we have seen and heard!” They also ask the elders to judge whether obedience to themselves or to God is right.

It is impossible for me not to think of Christian brothers and sisters in the ‘restricted-access’ countries nearby where I usually live. Despite being persecuted, hauled into police stations, thrown into jail, unable to work or send their children to school or buy property, they cannot not speak of what they know to be true. Would I be so bold? Would I have the courage? I barely have the courage to tell people about Jesus in a persecution-free nation. Have I not seen or have I not heard? How is it that my voice is so restricted? Do I not really believe it to be true? I am profoundly challenged by the message of these verses.

The Jewish elders release Peter and John after further threats, not finding any way to punish them because they have done no wrong and the people are all praising God for what happened to the 40 year old lame man. This reminds me of Peter’s own later charge to “Live such good lives … that [people] may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Pet 2:12). Doing good deeds gives us the opportunity, when people ask why, to share the name of Jesus. Let us do both!

Prayer: Dear God, please help me to see opportunities to do good, and when people ask me why I do good deeds, give me the courage to talk about the power of Jesus. Give me boldness, beyond my education, that comes from being with Jesus. Lord, I also lift up to you the persecuted church and pray that they will have confidence to continue trusting in you and teaching in the name of Jesus.

Acts 4:1-12

Click here to read the passage.

Peter’s preaching is interrupted by the priests, temple-guard, and Sadducees, who are outraged about his message that Jesus was raised from the dead. They put Peter (and probably John, but unknown how many others) in chains to await trial the next day. You may remember that Peter and John arrived at the temple at 3pm, healed the begging lame man, and then entered the temple. It has become evening and now we have to wait until tomorrow morning to find out what happens next – although Luke informs us that another 5000 men believed (or possibly another 1-2000, to bring the total number to about 5000).

When the religious leaders gather together, they bring Peter and John in to be examined, and ask them how they were able to heal the lame man. Peter’s answer is bold (cf 4:13) and clear, as a result of him being filled with the Holy Spirit. His response is that the lame man was healed by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom the leaders had crucified, and whom God raised from the dead. 

Peter then moves from the facts to an interpretation of the events by citing Jewish Scripture once more, this time Psalm 118:22, which he sees as fulfilled in Jesus. In fact, Peter had already heard Jesus quote that verse with reference to himself (Lk 20:17, cf 1 Pet 2:6). The cornerstone was a stone that was oddly shaped, not a rectangular prism, so that it wouldn’t fit as part of the regular wall-structure but only in a prominent position. In the metaphor, the builders are the Jewish leaders and Jesus is the rejected stone who is raised to the prominent position, enthroned at the right hand of God.

His conclusion is one of those famous verses which should be memorised: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name … by which we must be saved”. It helps to note that the word used for healing the lame man (v9) is the same Greek word which is translated as ‘save’ here. This is a common feature of New Testament Greek, where the line between healing and salvation is not at all clear. More important is the implication of this statement of Peter’s: there is no other way to be saved.

When you live in Asia, surrounded by committed Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and people of other religions, it is challenging to believe this. Are we Christians arrogant to believe ours is the only way? Actually, it depends on the destination we envisage, and what we are saved from and for. Technically, Hinduism and Buddhism do not believe in the survival of individual souls. The Jewish faith has no consensus on heaven or an afterlife, and the Muslim conception, although similar to ours, is not the same. Thus each religion indeed has its own way, but not necessarily to the same destination about which the New Testament speaks. If we want to go to the heaven which the Bible teaches, we do well to follow the road it prescribes to get there. That is, not by works or gaining merits, but by believing in the name of Jesus to save us from sin and death.

Prayer: Oh God, it is sometimes hard to understand and believe according to your word. Fill me with your Holy Spirit and give me confidence and boldness; help me know with certainty that Jesus died, was raised again, and opens the way for salvation for everyone who believes in him.

Acts 3:22-26

Click here to read the passage.

This last section of Peter’s sermon is almost more quotation than his own words – if it was a college student’s essay I might be critical! But the whole point of Peter’s argument here is that all that has happened was prophesied in the Jewish Scripture, and as his audience were Jewish, they should see that trusting in Jesus is not a departure from their own faith tradition.

He starts with Moses, as is written in Deuteronomy 18. Moses promised the Israelites that a prophet like himself would be raised up by God – note the double-layered significance of the word ‘raised up’ – and that they should listen to him. That is, Peter is saying, Moses commanded his people to listen to Jesus. 

Peter then goes on to cite the prophets, starting with Samuel, who predicted ‘these days’. (It may seem strange to our ears to hear Samuel named as a prophet when we are thinking of the written text of Scripture, but in the Hebrew Bible the Books of Samuel are the beginning of the prophets. They do not have a ‘history section’ as we do.) The ‘days’ Peter speaks of relate to the previous section, where he referred to the restoration of all things. The prophets envisaged a return to the perfection of the world before the fall of humanity, when creation lived in harmony. Isaiah saw it as a mountain community (eg Is 65:17-25); Ezekiel saw it as a garden-city (Ezek 47-48). 

Finally, Peter refers back to the Abrahamic covenant-promise, that through the descendants of Abraham would all the families of the earth be blessed (Gen 12:2-3). Peter reminds his listeners that they are the descendants of Abraham, and sons of the prophets. He is charging them to fulfil the covenant to bless the world, by receiving his servant Jesus and turning from wickedness.  

The application is clear to a Jewish person: receive Jesus as the Messiah, listen to him, turn from wickedness, and be a blessing to the world. For a non-Jewish person I don’t think it needs to be any different. Paul later will argue that non-Jewish believers are grafted into the olive-tree whose roots are in Abraham (Rom 11:17), so that they are also descendants of Abraham by faith (cf Gal 3:7). God blessed us by sending Jesus so that we would repent, turn from our wickedness, listen to his servant, and thus bless the world. 

Prayer: Thank you, Father, for sending Jesus to bless me. Help me to listen to him, by the Spirit and through your Word. Please turn me from my wickedness and inspire me to bring blessing to the world.

Acts 3:17-21

Click here to read the passage.

Peter’s sermon continues in these verses. He is now at the point of application. He graciously acknowledges that their sinful act of rejecting Jesus as Messiah arose from ignorance. This is, however, no salve. It means that even if we don’t know what we are doing wrong, or believing wrong, or thinking wrong – it is still wrong. In Australia it is illegal to do a U-turn at traffic lights. No such rule exists in Thailand and signs indicate if it is not allowed. If I get booked for doing a U-turn at a traffic light in Australia, I can’t just say that I didn’t know and therefore don’t deserve a ticket; I am condemned by the law.

Jesus suffered and died as much for the sins committed in ignorance as for wilful wrongdoing. As Peter taught in the previous paragraph, the Messiah’s suffering was a fulfilment of God’s word through his prophets.

He therefore urges his listeners to repent – change their minds and attitudes – and turn back to God. The result of this is that their sins would be blotted out, or wiped away. This imagery is used in Isaiah (43:25; 44:22), upon whose writing a lot of Peter’s preaching seems to depend, and also in Psalm 51. Imagine a whiteboard filled with all your sin and wrongdoing, every nasty word, every tiny lie, every act of selfishness, every time you have thought yourself more important than others. Now visualise it being wiped away. It is gone, the whiteboard is clean.

A further result of this is that times of refreshing come from the presence of the Lord. ‘Refreshing’ is an unusual word in the New Testament, appearing only here and in 2 Tim 1:16. The idea is recovery from heat’s effects, or cooling off. If my sins were still written on that whiteboard, God’s presence would elicit fear and shame, a flushed face. But now that the whiteboard is clean, being in God’s presence is peaceful and energising. I imagine myself plunging into a cool waterfall after a hot walk in the jungle.

The last part of this section is less easy to understand, but continues in the theme of ‘times’. Basically, Peter gives a timeline thus: the Messiah first was prophesied, then appointed in the person of Jesus (and now we experience refreshing by having our sins forgiven), who is currently in heaven, until God sends him back at the time that all creation will be restored – as originally promised by the prophets. We will hear more about prophets again tomorrow!

Prayer: God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, sometimes unknowingly, sometimes by sins of omission when I did not do the good I ought to have done. I repent and turn back to you. Thank you that you have blotted out all my sin by the grace of Jesus who suffered and died on my behalf to take the punishment I deserve. I rest in your presence with joy and peace.

Acts 3:11-16

Click here to read the passage.

I love the personal image of the newly healed man clinging to Peter and John, but Luke’s camera quickly shifts to the crowd in Solomon’s portico. Peter takes advantage of this attention and begins once more to preach. He assures the crowd that the power to heal does not come from himself, but from Jesus. His sermon has a similar flavour to that in the previous chapter: he outlines some biblical predictions of the Messiah, which he shows as fulfilled in Jesus. 

He grounds his teaching in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the forefathers of Jewish faith. Following Jesus does not mean departing from the ancient faith, but embracing what God is doing anew – and had promised – in his chosen, holy and righteous servant. 

As anticipated in Isaiah, this servant was despised and rejected, pierced, crushed and wounded, cut off from the living and laid in a grave (Is 53:3-10). The men of Israel delivered up and denied him, preferring a murderer to be released in his place (Lk 23:18), thus effecting his death. In words of powerful irony, Peter states that they “killed the author of life”. But God raised him from the dead, to which Peter and the other apostles were witnesses.

It is easy to leave Peter’s message in the past and identify the Jews in Solomon’s portico as his audience. But remember that Peter himself was a Jesus-denier. Am I?  There are times that I have rejected Jesus just as clearly as did those first century Jews. I have ignored his teachings and done my own thing. It is my actions and will, as much as theirs, that sent Jesus to the cross to suffer and die.

And yet, as risen and reigning king, Jesus’ power is still present to heal and forgive. The lame man did not even ask for healing, and yet his story ends with leaping and praise in perfect health and strength. It is faith in Jesus that has brought this transformation.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I confess that I have rejected and denied you, and that it was my transgressions that you bore on the cross, taking my punishment. Grant me faith in you, that my sin may be forgiven and my soul healed.

Acts 3:1-10

Click here to read the passage.

There are so many unexpected surprises in this passage. We don’t sense the surprise because we have heard – and even sung – the story so many times. 

First of all, for us as readers it feels like we have been suddenly transported back into the Gospel story. After two chapters of groups and meetings and speeches, now we see the intricate detail of Peter and John going up to the temple to pray at 3pm, and encountering a born-lame man who is begging. The specific gate is mentioned so that there can be no doubt about who this particular lame man is; it could even be that some of Luke’s readers could visualize the scene, having been at that gate before. We see it all clearly.

And then there is this strange extended discussion of looking. The beggar sees them going into the temple; Peter and John stare at the beggar; they tell him to look at them (so presumably he wasn’t looking to start out with?); then he carefully observes them. I have used four different verbs here to reflect the four different ‘looking’ verbs Luke uses in three verses. It is as if Luke is saying to the reader, “Watch closely what is about to happen!”

The beggar is surprised. He was expecting alms, mercy-money. Instead he received the ability to walk, for the first time in his life. Peter helps him to his feet, and immediately they are strong, and he leaps! He walks and leaps and praises God.

Last of all, the people are surprised, “filled with wonder and amazement … utterly astounded”. This again reminds us of a parallel story from the Gospel (Lk 5:17-26), and we will meet this crowd again in the following verses.

The function of this story is to show us that Jesus’ authority and power to heal has been invested in his followers. This healing is not merely a wonder but also a sign (cf 2:43), a sign that Jesus, in whose name the miracle was performed, is indeed Lord and Messiah (cf 2:36). His advent, death, resurrection and ascension have ushered in the new age promised by the prophets. Isaiah foresaw that “the lame will leap like a deer” (Is 35:6), a sign that John the Baptist quoted (Lk 7:22). This healing story is a confirmation that we have entered into the new age of the Spirit.

How often are we surprised by the things that God does right before our eyes? Do we need to look again at a certain situation to understand what is really going on? Perhaps we need a prod from the Spirit and from the Scripture to look more closely or more carefully at what he is about to do.

Prayer: Lord God, please open my eyes to the things you are doing in the world, and in my own life. Forgive me for my blindness, and for being stuck in a rut where it seems that nothing is new. Help me experience the power of your healing in myself and also in those around me. Use me to bring healing to others in the world.