Acts 4:13-22

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Acts 2:42-46

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Some of the words used in this passage deliberately remind us of the first disciples gathering together in 1:14. Luke is showing how the group is growing but staying true to essential principles: teaching, prayer, and fellowship, including eating together, both in private home settings and publicly in the temple. But added here is the idea of sharing all things in common, even selling their possessions to give the money to anyone who has a need.

We have personal experience of this kind of commonality, something which constantly amazes my non-believing family. As cross-cultural workers who return to our sending country every few years, we are often given cars to drive and homes for accommodation at no cost. I don’t think anyone has sold their possessions in order to share with us the proceeds, but we are certainly the beneficiaries of people’s sacrificial giving. In return, we try to be generous with our own things – car, house, time, meals – in the country where we usually live, but it is rarely a reciprocal style of giving because of our geographical dislocation. Nevertheless, I believe we could all do more, share more, support one another more, eat together more. The net effect of this lifestyle, apart from the obvious benefits, is favour with the people and ongoing growth of the fellowship.

The other factor in this growth is the wonders and signs performed by the apostles. We will hear more details about this in the following chapters. I have not seen supernatural miracles in my ministry, or the ministry of those around me, although I don’t believe that they are no longer possible. What I have seen is the dedicated work of my team-mates and others in bringing education, healing, and social transformation to the societies and individuals with whom they work. It may not be a miracle, but it is a sign and a wonder when a family is reunited, when a drug addict is set free, when an under-privileged child receives teaching that can lift their eyes beyond their circumstances.

Let us not neglect the significant activities listed in this short passage: (1) devotion to the apostles’ teaching (now enshrined in the New Testament); (2) the fellowship of believers, including eating together; (3) prayer and praise; (4) sharing possessions and supporting one another in times of need. These were the building blocks of the early church and they will also increase the church today.

Prayer: Lord, I confess that sometimes I grow tired, bored, and even overwhelmed with these essentials. It sometimes feels like more than I can do, and I want to keep to myself and for myself. Forgive me for my selfishness. Empower me with your Holy Spirit to be one who gives, one who prays and praises. Help me reach out to my brothers and sisters for gathering together, and teach us through your word. I ask this so that my own faith will be enriched, but also so that your church may grow. 

Acts 2:37-41

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The effect of Peter’s sermon was like a stab in the heart. Have you felt that before? The hearers asked Peter and the apostles what they should do in response to God’s word, and Peter is swift in urging them to repent. That is, they must change their minds, encompassing both thinking and attitude. They must also be baptized in the name of Jesus the anointed King (‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ is a short-hand way of saying this). Their sins will be forgiven and they will receive the Spirit, just as Peter and the other disciples had done only moments before. What incredible grace for men who had just been accused of crucifying the very Lord who was willing to forgive and gift them!

Peter asserts that this promise stands for all whom God calls. Go back to Joel 2:28-32, from which Peter has just quoted in Acts 2:17-21, and you will see there that Peter is continuing to preach from these verses. God calls a remnant to survive Judgment Day, described consistently in the Old Testament as ‘The Day of the LORD’. “In Jerusalem there will be those who escape.” Those escapees are listening now, and seed the remnant of the old Israel and the beginning of the new, in the context of a crooked generation who would put to death their own life-giver. Thus did the church blossom that day.

What do we learn from this? Primarily, that God is gracious. He extends mercy, he calls, and he saves, both those who are near and those who are far away. Secondly, we learn that the right response to God is to repent and to be baptised. Let’s unpack that. 

Repentance is a turning of the mind away from my own mental world and towards God and his kingdom. Instead of going down the road of self-aggrandisement and self-protection, we turn around and go down the road of God-glorification. 

Talking about baptism seems to be like entering a theological minefield, especially in a tiny space like this one. Let it suffice to say that baptism is a public acknowledgement or sign of being a follower of Jesus, of being identified with him. It is not a kind of magical charm. It is not a necessity for entering Jesus’ kingdom. There may be followers of Jesus who choose not to be baptised for a particular reason for a length of time. Anyone who has been called by God, and calls back to him, will be forgiven and saved.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for your grace and mercy. I am amazed that you call me. I call back to you, Lord, asking for your forgiveness and the gift of your Holy Spirit to guide and counsel me. Help me to keep shifting my mind back to you and your glory; every time I begin to turn away, help me to turn back. I identify with you Jesus, I am your follower and a part of your family.

Acts 2:14-36

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Today, instead of looking at the minute details of the passage, we will have an overview of a larger section. This is the first record of an apostle preaching. To start with, Peter asks for attention, and then he notes the present context (sobriety at 9am). 

His first main point is to underline that what has been happening is a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy: Joel predicted this outpouring of the Spirit on all people – male and female, young and old, even servants. It was the prophet who announced that familiar saying, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (cf Acts 4:12); this was not a novel teaching of the New Testament preachers, although the identification of ‘the Lord’ with Jesus of Nazareth would have been mind-bending for the Jews of the day. 

The next main section outlines the important historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth: a miracle-worker who was killed by men and then raised from death by God. He again shows how this was predicted in Scripture, and asserts that he, Peter, and the eleven were eye-witnesses of the resurrected Jesus. Verse 33, towards the climax, is a wonderful tie-in of the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and humanity. Peter’s conclusion is that the crucified Jesus has been made Lord – that is, ruler – and Christ – that is, anointed King and Saviour.

It is crucial to understand the background of how Peter and the other New Testament writers interpreted Jesus as Lord. If you look at the Old Testament passages quoted in Peter’s speech, you will see that ‘Lord’ is capitalized (Joel 2:31-32; Ps 16:8; Ps 110:1 [first occurrence]), meaning that the Hebrew text has God’s name, sometimes written as Yahweh or Jehovah. We don’t see this in Peter’s speech because in Greek the divine name is simply translated as ‘Lord’, or kyrios. However, the Old Testament texts Peter uses make clear that he is not simply saying that Jesus is Lord in the sense that he is the ruler; he is actually saying that Jesus is God, the LORD, Yahweh, Jehovah, and perhaps claiming that every Old Testament reference to the divine name reflects the person of Jesus. He is not alone in the New Testament in doing this; but we don’t have space here to look at every verse where this is the case.

For a period in my life I tried to read the Old Testament deliberately thinking of every mention of LORD as referring to Jesus, the second person of the Trinity. It did my head in to think of Elohim (God) as the Father and LORD (Yahweh) as the Son, as it was impossible for my finite mind to separate their persons and their actions in this way – so I don’t recommend the practice! (Also, doesn’t Ps 110:1 indicate that Yahweh God puts the Lord Jesus at his right hand?) But it is instructive to realize and remember that the Son doesn’t just suddenly show up in the Gospels; he has been part of the story from the beginning (from Gen 2:4), as the creator, sustainer, ruler, and saviour of the world, on whose name all may call for salvation.

Prayer: Dear God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are my Lord and my King. I submit myself to your rule. I acknowledge that you are supreme over all things, even death. Thank you that you also promise to save me if I call on your name. I call out to you, Lord: save me by your grace.

Acts 2:5-12

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As a language-learner, I love this story. I wish we could be so ‘lucky’, telling the great things of God and having everyone around understand regardless of their own dialect. 

There are many Jews of the diaspora, near and far, gathered in Jerusalem when the Spirit fills the believers. The setting is somewhat unclear; were the disciples in an ordinary house, perhaps the upper room (2:2; cf 1:13), or were they in the temple, where all the pilgrims were gathered to worship at the feast? Did it happen in a moment, or over hours and days? In the end it doesn’t matter; what happens is that thousands (cf 2:41) of international people, from Iraq to Northern Africa to Europe, hear the simple Galilean disciples speak in their own many native languages. We might ask, as they did, “What does this mean?”

What it means is that the curse of Babel has been reversed. Back in Genesis 11:1-9, in the last of the mythological[1] style stories at the beginning of the Bible, God confused human language so that humanity could not together build a tower to reach heaven and so make a name for themselves. God’s reasoning was that “they all have one language … and nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen 11:6). By reversing the curse here in Acts 2, God through his Holy Spirit is now making it possible for this renewed humanity to do the impossible, just as Jesus had promised (Lk 18:27). It was possible for Jesus to be raised from the dead, and it is possible to preach this message to the whole world. It is even possible for human beings to love one another, and to be one, across cultural and ethnic divides (cf Eph 2:14-18).

Notice also that in this story the world (or at least diaspora Jews) has come to Jerusalem (cf Is 2:2-3). This is the beginning of the spread of the gospel which Jesus envisaged in Acts 1:8. 

Unfortunately, we will not all be gifted with the ability to speak in other languages that all people can understand – we wish! But the Spirit working in us does enable us to proclaim God’s marvellous acts, and to reach out to others of different nations and cultures. 

Prayer: God, please fill me with your Spirit! Enable me and give me boldness to speak about you in a way that everyone will understand. Grant me a heart that loves people of other cultures, as you do.

[1] ‘mythological’ in the sense that the text is explaining the origins of phenomena found in present reality.