Commentary on Acts 3:12-19
When interpreting Acts, especially the speeches it contains, it is important to pay attention to how this peculiar book communicates its theological understanding of what’s going on in the post-Easter world.
That’s a big topic, but one especially pertinent detail is this: Acts never describes exactly how Jesus accomplishes God’s salvation or why he had to die before the Holy Spirit would come and (re)gather people into an alternate society. Acts offers no fancy atonement theories or trite spiritual laws that will satisfy people who prefer a theology that explains. Instead, Acts repeatedly insists that Jesus is the one who brings God’s salvific promises to fulfillment, that he is the Messiah promised to Israel, and that his resurrection is the ground of our hope. The theological emphases on display in Acts aim to help you trust.
When people stand up and address audiences in Acts, like Peter does in Acts 3, they urge them to begin a journey that resembles the road the earliest Christ-followers walked. Embrace Jesus and align yourself with his movement, for he brings and enacts the salvation that God provides to humanity. Tell others (Acts 1:8). Pay attention to what happens next. Consult the scriptures so you don’t forget about all the wild promises God is fulfilling. Remain open to the Spirit and trust God to reveal to you (plural) more and more ways in which God is enlarging your (plural) understanding of the alternate society God is creating. And never forget that all of that is founded in Jesus.
Acts tells believers that they are part of an ongoing quest to discover, steward, and share the good news that through Jesus Christ God has changed the world and made a pledge about the future. The quest begins in trust. Theology is what you discover as a result.
No wonder, then, that Peter begins his sermon in Solomon’s Portico by directing focus immediately to the God of Israel and the power that resides in the name of the glorified Jesus. Recall that Peter has this preaching opportunity in the first place because a crowd of his fellow Jews has gathered to marvel at the man standing next to him and John. Formerly that man was unable to walk and able to survive only because of handouts he collected at one of the temple gates. Now he’s bouncing around and praising God aloud. Peter wastes little time in insisting that he and John had little to do with it.
This scene reiterates what Acts announces from its opening verse: the story of Jesus really has not ended. It continues to expand. We see that when the man experiences healing, recalling a deed Jesus performed in Luke 5:17-26 (see Acts 14:8-10, when Paul gets in on the act). We see it also in Peter’s sermon when he accuses the assembled “people” (laos; see also Acts 3:23) of rejecting and killing Jesus, “the Holy and Righteous One” and “the Author of life” (Acts 3:14-15).1 Even though there is no reason to assume that this crowd at the temple is the same group of “people” (see laos in Luke 23:13) who demanded that Pilate kill Jesus, still Acts treats them as representatives of the city that previously missed God’s arrival (Luke 19:41-44; see also 13:34).2 They, like their leaders, couldn’t grasp what was happening. Therefore the message to this gathering of “the people” is familiar: repent (see Luke 3:3; 5:32; 24:47; Acts 2:38). That is, renounce your pre-Easter ignorance and open your mind to the reality that God has vindicated Jesus. Embrace the truth that more is to come.
The sermon promises a number of things to which the crowd can look forward: sins expunged (the same verb exaleiphō appears also in the Septuagint’s rendering of Psalm 51:1, 9), refreshment, and Christ’s eventual return. A preacher has to read beyond verse 19 to reach all of those enticing promises, which should strike all sensible preachers as a good idea. Congregations feel like they’re getting a fuller story when the assigned reading ends with a period instead of a comma, so go at least through verse 21. In that case you’ll be able to inform your listeners that the experience of the healed man offers a kind of sneak peek at a grander future. The NRSV, in verse 31, calls that future state of affairs “the time of universal restoration,” but a better translation is “the restoration of all people,” or possibly “the restoration of all things.”
That phrase appears nowhere else in the New Testament, so it isn’t entirely clear what Peter is talking about. Nevertheless, reading still more verses will help. If we keep going all the way to the end of the sermon, Peter credits the prophets with the idea of “the restoration of all,” and he connects it to the covenant God made with Abraham, so it has to be big—bigger than Moses (see Deuteronomy 18:15-20) and finally inclusive of “all the families of the earth” (see Genesis 12:3). But the road to the grandiose vision begins here, with this crowd. Peter asks them to trust. To embrace Jesus.
A key point in the final movement of the sermon, then, is that Peter describes Jesus and the future to come as continuous with promises God has made in the past. That should be a familiar claim in churches that read the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) during Advent. But it bears repeating in Easter, lest congregations dangerously imagine that a passage like this offers a reason for gentile boasting.3
Preachers err if they treat this passage as an appeal to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, as if that is a kind of lever that unlocks salvation for an individual. See it instead as an echo of something Jesus said in his own ministry: we live in a time that calls for repentance. Even better: we live in a time in which repentance is possible (see Luke 13:1-9). Readers who listen regularly to Sermon Brainwave have heard me say before that repentance is a much larger notion than moral contrition or a commitment to live differently. It is to adopt a whole new outlook. It’s to be brought to the realization that a seeking Savior is coming to deliver you (see Luke 15:10). Not even death can stop him. The man who is healed prior to the sermon knows that. He knows what it is to be brought into a totally changed world.
- The term laos in Luke-Acts often carries a connection to the collective people of Israel or people who represent Israel as a nation.
- Sharpening the accusation, the word you, when appearing as a subject in Acts 3:13-14, is emphatic in Greek.
- Note that the material Peter appears to be quoting in Acts 3:22-23 is not taken directly from the Septuagint. It consists mostly of material from Deuteronomy 18:15-20 with words from Leviticus 23:29 added. That combination makes it one of the more problematic passages in Acts.