< April 15, 2012 >

Commentary on Acts 3:1-26 

 

The summary statement at the end of Acts 2 says that in Jerusalem, "awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles" (2:43), and that Jesus' followers "spent much time together in the temple" (2:46).

The beginning of chapter 3 illustrates these statements beautifully. Peter and John are shown "going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o'clock in the afternoon" (3:1), where an encounter with a lame man leads to a wondrous healing and amazement among the people.

Lame Man Leaping

The man lame from birth is carried in daily and laid at a temple gate to beg for alms from those entering the temple. When he encounters Peter and John, he gets much more than he bargained for. "I have no silver or gold," Peter says, "but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk" (3:6).

Peter takes the lame man by the hand and raises him up (3:7). Immediately the lame man's feet and ankles are made strong again, so that he not only stands, but walks and leaps into the temple praising God (3:8). His response recalls Isaiah 35, which says that "the lame shall leap like a deer" when the redeemed return joyfully to Zion (35:6). When the people see the man walking and leaping, and recognize him as the same man who used to beg at the temple gate, they are filled with wonder and amazement.

Peter's Portico Sermon

Astonished, the people quickly surround Peter, John, and the newly healed man in Solomon's Portico, a colonnade on the east side of the temple enclosure (3:11). As at Pentecost, Peter seizes the opening provided by wondrous signs and buzzing crowds to proclaim Jesus as Messiah. He first clarifies what is happening, lest there be any misunderstanding (cf. Acts 2:14-16), stating that the healing has taken place not by his or John's own "power or piety," but by faith in the name of Jesus (3:12-16).

Echoing themes from his Pentecost sermon, Peter interprets Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection within the framework of Israel's history and scriptures. The God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the author of all that has taken place. Though the people handed over Jesus to Pilate, though they rejected the "Holy and Righteous One" and put to death the "Author of life," God raised him from the dead and glorified him (3:13-15). It is through faith in the name of Jesus, whom God raised up (geiren), that this lame man has been raised up (cf. 3:7 - geiren) and restored to health (3:16).

Peter acknowledges that the people and their rulers acted in ignorance when they handed Jesus over to death, but says that God used their actions to fulfill what was foretold through the prophets, "that his Messiah would suffer" (3:17-18; cf. Luke 24:25-27, 44-48). Here, as throughout the speeches in Acts, human culpability for Jesus' death is held in tension with the inevitability of his death in God's plan. Just as their ancestors persecuted and killed the prophets, so now the people have murdered the Righteous One whose coming the prophets foretold (cf. 7:51-53). Yet God's gracious will to save is stronger than human rebellion. God reverses humanity's death-dealing ways by raising Jesus from the dead and offering forgiveness and life in his name.

As at Pentecost (2:37-40), Peter sounds the call to repentance, urging the people to turn to God so that their sins "may be wiped out," so that "times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is Jesus" (3:19-20). The "times of refreshing" -- times of forgiveness and healing -- will culminate in the return of Jesus the Messiah and the "universal restoration" or fulfillment of all that God has promised through the prophets (3:21). All the prophets, "from Samuel and those after him," foretold these days (3:24).

Indeed, even before Samuel, Moses spoke of what is taking place. Peter quotes Deuteronomy 18:15, in which Moses says that God will raise up a prophet like him, to whom the people must listen (3:22). Peter then conflates Deuteronomy 18:19a with Leviticus 23:29b to say that everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be cut off or "utterly rooted out" of the people (3:23).

The promise of God raising up a prophet like Moses had taken on eschatological expectations by the first century. Peter draws on such expectations, as well as the multivalence of anistmi, which can mean to "raise up" in the sense of appointing a prophet or to "raise up" from the dead. Jesus is the prophet whom God "raised up" and sent first to the people of Israel, "to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways" (3:26). The people of Jerusalem have been given a second chance to heed this prophet sent by God. Though they rejected and killed him the first time, they now have the opportunity to repent and turn to God and have their sins wiped out.

The consequences for refusing to listen to God's prophet a second time are dire -- nothing less than being "utterly rooted out of the people." Peter appeals to his listeners not to let that happen. "You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, 'And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed'" (3:25). Peter urges the people not to reject God's purpose for them, but to turn to God and be blessed, so that they might participate in the universal restoration God is bringing about through Jesus the Messiah.

The Larger Narrative

A significant portion of Luke-Acts scholarship treats it as a narrative of Israel's rejection of the gospel and the movement of the gospel to the Gentiles. A more coherent reading, in my view, is that Luke-Acts portrays the division of Israel foretold by Simeon in Luke 2:34-35: "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed."1

There is no claim in Luke-Acts that Israel is being replaced as God's people. Rather, God's sending of the Messiah brings about a purging of Israel, so that Jews who believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord -- and according to Acts there are thousands (2:41; 21:20) -- constitute a restored people of God, through whom the gospel will spread to the Gentiles. Indeed, it has always been part of God's plan to gather the Gentiles into God's people (3:25; 15:13-17).

What does this mean for us reading this story today as a church of mostly Gentile Christians? One implication is that we cannot claim "insider" status. As Don Juel puts it, "We are addressed by the story as strangers with no claim to a place at the table. We become part of the 'you' for whom Luke writes only by the gracious act of Israel's God through Jesus the Messiah."2

This recognition ought to inoculate us against smugness and complacency. As those graciously grafted onto Israel's family tree, we cannot simply bask in our blessedness or rest in the faithfulness of our ancestors. In every generation, we are called to heed the voice of the servant whom God raised up, repent of our resistance to God's will, and turn again to God's mission to bless "all the families of the earth."


1E.g., Jacob Jervell, Luke and the People of God (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972); Donald Juel, Luke-Acts: The Promise of History (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983); David Tiede, Prophecy and History in Luke-Acts (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980).
2Don Juel, "Hearing Peter's Speech in Acts 3: Meaning and Truth in Interpretation," Word & World 12/1 (1992) 48.