In Acts, the action book of the New Testament, we are examining the first miracle in this present age in which we live: The instantaneous healing of a lame man who, waiting at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, had asked for money from Peter and John as they went up to pray. And, you remember, Peter had turned and said to him,
“Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have I give to you: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk,” (Acts 3:6 KJV)
And taking him by the hand he lifted him up, and the man’s feet and ankles received strength, and he began to leap and shout and walk around the temple courts, praising God. Now, Dr. Luke tells us what followed immediately, starting in verse eleven of chapter three:
While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s, astounded. And when Peter saw it he addressed the people,
“Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?” (Acts 3:11-12 RSV)
I hope your imagination can capture this scene. This healed cripple, in unbounded joy, is holding onto Peter and John with both arms. They are trying to get away, but he will not let them go. The Greek is very strong — it means that he clung to them with great strength. The people around, seeing this commotion, rush over to Solomon’s porch of the temple, and, recognizing the formerly lame man who sat at the Beautiful Gate, they are astonished at what has happened to him.
And when Peter looked at their faces, he saw two things: He saw this astonishment –
- The fact that they were bug-eyed with amazement at what had happened; and
- He saw a sense of reverence for himself and John developing, a misguided hero-worship.
Peter saw that these people, like many today, really did not believe in a God who could act in history. Even though this had followed the ministry of Jesus, in which they had seen many miracles like this, they are astonished at this one. And it also told Peter that they were ready to substitute a false explanation. They were attributing it somehow to a possession of magical powers on the part of Peter and John.
Now that you have the background for Peter’s address, the key to this message is his opening words:
“Men of Israel…”
There is a very explicit Hebraic cast to what Peter now says because he recognizes that these people to whom he is speaking are all Israelites. And, in what he says, you need to underscore the word “you.”
“Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this? You should know better. You ought to know that God is this kind of a God. He has acted in your history many times like this. He breaks through suddenly and remarkably and supernaturally, and you ought to know that. Why do you stare at us as though we had done this? You Hebrews ought to know better than that. After all, God has used many other men in your history in remarkable ways, and you should be aware of this.”
I do not think we will understand this passage entirely unless we see that Peter has in mind the background of these people and that he assumes they know the Scriptures and ought to have anticipated something like this. Beginning with Verse 13, you have the message that Peter gives, and it is a most remarkable one. It falls very quickly into three divisions, and in each one of these divisions, Peter says something most startling.
In the first section, he begins with a series of facts, which could do nothing but arouse the guilt of these people. Now, psychologists today tell us that the worst thing you can do in trying to help someone is to stimulate a sense of guilt within them, that if you make them feel guilty, you shut the door to any real help to them. But the remarkable thing about this message is that Peter, without hesitation, moves to a recital of facts, which arouse the guilt of these people:
“The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” (Acts 3:13-15 RSV)
We have seen before that Christianity always rests upon facts. And here is a series of unquestioned facts, which Peter puts before these people, in which they had been deeply and inextricably involved. Notice the contrast he draws between the acts of God and the acts of men. He says, “God — the very God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of your fathers, the God whom you have worshiped — God glorified his servant Jesus, but you delivered him up. God glorified him; you delivered him to be crucified.”
“And furthermore, the man to whom you delivered him — Pilate — who was a pagan, Gentile ruler and who did not have the background of theology or of the understanding of God’s activity that you have, was convinced of his innocence and tried to release him. But you — you denied him. You people, who ought to have recognized him as One sent from God, denied him, but Pilate tried to release him.”
“And third, the One you denied was the Holy and Righteous One.” Here he is using terms that these Hebrews would have understood because they come from the Old Testament. These are names applied to Messiah, and they recognize his deity, his divine nature, and the fact that the One who was coming would be God himself. Peter says,
“You denied the Holy and Righteous One when he came. Instead, you asked for a murderer to be granted to you. In his place, you demanded that Barabbas be delivered up to you, and he was a murderer. In other words, you denied the Giver of life, and asked that a taker of life be delivered up to you.”
“Furthermore,” he says, “you killed the Author of life.” “He is the Pioneer of that life, the first One — and you killed him. But God answered you by raising him from the dead.” All of these were facts, and he says, “We are the witnesses of this.”
Once again, we see that Christian faith always rests upon well-attested, well-documented facts. It is not a religion of ideas, or mere sentimental hopes that men have had; it rests upon facts which can be attested to by witnesses, as in a court of law. The way that we prove what happens today is by declaring certain facts and bringing in certain witnesses to establish them. And is precisely the basis upon which Christian faith always rests. These things happened, and these people cannot deny it.
As a result, Peter has so laid hold of their hearts that, as on the day of Pentecost, they are cut to the heart by the conviction of guilt which these facts arouse. In a sense, every sermon, every message, ought to be a form of major surgery like that, which cuts down through all the illusion, the fantasy, and the dream worlds that we build around ourselves cuts right through to reality.
To me, that is the joy of Christianity. The conventional idea — that Jesus and the apostles were some misty-eyed dreamers who went about speaking of beautiful worlds and fantastic ideas is exploded when you start reading the Scriptures. There you discover that it is Jesus and the apostles who are the hard-nosed realists, who are always injecting hard truths into a world ruled by illusion, and that is what is happening here.
Now, why would Peter do a thing like that? Why start out with making these people feel this awful burden of guilt?
Peter wanted them to feel this terrible load of guilt because, as psychologists correctly tell us today, guilt is a destructive force in human lives. We cannot live with the guilt. Every one of us has experienced it. The fundamental characteristic of fallen man is that he feels guilty. There is not a person in the world that has ever been free of guilt. It is a very disturbing, unhappy feeling, which we find moves quickly to produce other emotions. Guilt promptly creates fear. If you feel guilty, you soon will begin to feel afraid.
Remember when you were little, and you did things that did not please your parents, and felt guilty about it?
You discovered immediately your reaction was to hide because you were afraid. So guilt always moves to fear, and fear is an unpleasant companion to live with, too.
And it always moves to something else. It takes one of two courses. Fear drives a person to run and hide, or to escape in some form, or it moves him to hostility and resentment and bitterness and anger — one or the other. If it moves to escapism, it soon becomes despair. Because if you hide from life, life soon loses all its color and all its flavor and all its meaning.
I believe this is what is happening to a whole generation in our day, a generation of young people who, feeling a deep sense of guilt and fear, have tried to escape using drugs or sex or some other channel. This sin has resulted in a vast blanket of despair, which has settled down upon humanity everywhere. And depression becomes destructive of humanity. Life turns off and seems hardly worth the living, and this often results in outright self-destruction.
If guilt and fear do not produce escapism, they create hostility — a feeling of resentment, of bitterness. And pain creates violence, and this is why this generation and the world in which we live — of all classes — is a world either escaping or given to violence. And violence is destructive of the humanness, the humanity of individuals. So the result is always the same: this deep sense of guilt and fear, working through channels of escape and hostility, to end up always in destruction in one form or another.
Why would Peter want to awaken this kind of force in these hearts?
The answer is that before the guilt and fear which are aroused by these words can move on either to escape or hostility, Peter moves to his next point, which is God’s answer to guilt — and the only answer there is to guilt in the human race. Peter describes a faith, which lays hold of the grace of God:
“And his name[the name of Jesus], by faith in his name, has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith which is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.” (Acts 3:16 RSV)
What does he mean?
Well, he is demonstrating the reaction of God to the guilt of man. Here is a lame man who is part of this guilty nation. Though he was physically challenged and incapacitated in himself, yet he was part of this government, which had rejected its Messiah and had cried out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” when Pilate had wanted to let him go, (Luke 23:21, John 19:6). He was just as guilty as anyone else in that crowd that day.
Here he stands in perfect health, restored and made whole by God’s power. “And,” says Peter, “the ground of his acceptance before God, the only thing that made God do this beautiful thing in his life, was nothing of merit in himself but merely his faith in the name of Jesus” and this is what Peter is trying to communicate. He says,
“God is demonstrating for you people how he responds to human guilt. He reacts in love and grace, by the name of Jesus, by faith in the name of Jesus. That is what made this man whole. Don’t look at us; we didn’t do it. When we spoke the name of Jesus, this man believed in the power and authority and the work of that name, and immediately there came flowing into his body the strength his limbs lacked. And this is why he now stands here in perfect health before you, as a demonstration of God’s answer to human guilt.”