THE POWER BEHIND PETER’S CHARITY
Third Sunday of Easter
Analysis by Steven C. Kuhl
3:12 When Peter saw [the astonishment of the people over his healing of the lame man], he addressed the people, ‘You Israelites, 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? 13The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. 14But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, 15and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.
17‘And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. 19Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,
DIAGNOSIS: Relying on Human Power and Piety
Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem) : Impressed But Dumbfounded at the Church’s Charitable Work
In a recent article, a German Lutheran bishop observed that people today tend to think of the church as simply another social work agency. They might be impressed by the charitable work that the church does, but they think no further than that. That is also the attitude of the people in today’s text with regard to Peter’s charitable work of healing the man born lame (see Acts 3:1-10 for the full story). Although they are amazed at Peter’s miraculous charitable deed, nevertheless, they can do no more than “stare at [Peter and the disciples]” and “wonder at this” feat in a dumbfounded manner (v. 12). They have no idea what Peter’s act means. They have no inkling about the what more that Peter and the Church have to give—namely, the forgiveness of sins (cf. v. 19). And they certainly have no clue about what—or rather, who—makes Peter’s charitable work possible: “the name [read: “authority”] of Jesus Christ” (v. 16).
Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem) : Trusting in Human Power and Piety; Rejecting the Holy and Righteous One
But that does not mean they do not have their own deeply held beliefs about what all is behind Peter’s charitable act—wrong though they be and informed by “ignorance” (v. 17). Peter puts his finger on their “faith” when he diagnoses the people’s “stare” in his address to them. They stare at Peter and the disciples as “though by [their] own [human] power or piety [they] had made this man walk” (v. 12): with human “power” (innate virtue) being what Gentiles prize and human “piety” (obedience to God’s Law) being what Jews prize. And where did Peter get that diagnosis? From the fact that they have “rejected the Holy and Righteous One” (v. 14), who is the “Author of life” (v. 15) and, therefore, the source of his charitable acts. Indeed, this misguided, over-reaching confidence in human “power or piety” is precisely what Peter identifies as their “sin” which needs to be “wiped out” (v. 19). God is not pleased to act through Peter and the disciples because of their superior “power or piety” but because of “faith in the Lord Jesus.” But more on that later.
Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem) : God Wipes out Sinners
But blank stares, misplaced confidence in human powers or piety and the rejection of the Messiah Jesus are not the whole story of the human predicament. All these things signal the fact that unless all this—which is “sin”—is not wiped out of sinners, then sinners will be wiped out by God. Another way to say this using the language of the text is this: those who “reject” God’s Messiah (that is, God’s “help”) will find themselves rejected by God and left in their sins. True, Peter does not say this here in so many words, but he does say it poignantly later on in v. 23—and it is certainly implied in the prognosis that permeates the text at every point.
PROGNOSIS: Trusting in the Name of Jesus
Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution) : God Wipes out Sin, Proclaiming Forgiveness through the Messiah Who Suffered
It is important to see in this text that God’s charity offered in the name of Jesus Christ through Peter is not only extended to the man born lame. Significantly, it is also extended to all sinful people through Peter’s proclamation that “God fulfilled what he foretold through the prophets, that the Messiah would suffer” for our salvation (v. 18), or “refreshment” as Peter calls it in verse 20. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection God has shown Jesus to be the “Author of life,” meaning that he is the charitable giver of new life to sinners. For sinners, new life begins with forgiveness and that is what the Messiah’s suffering is all about. On the cross he was “wiping out” (v. 19) sin so that forgiveness may become the God’s charitable gift to sinners. Not our human “power or piety” but Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, establishes the basis for the forgiven of sins. Therefore, when true forgiveness from God is given it is de facto to be given “in the name of Jesus,” meaning, by his authority alone.
Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution) : Repent and Turn to God
Of course, the forgiveness Jesus established through the cross is nothing for us until it becomes applied to us. Therefore, at the heart of Peter’s proclamation is the appeal, “Repent and turn to God SO THAT your sins may be wiped out” (v. 19). The language of “turn to God” is very important here. Of course, it is a synonym for “believe in God” or “trust in God.” But two things need to be noted. First, the language of “turn” signifies a radical change in faith or belief or focus that is accomplished not by the exertion of human power or the display of human piety, but by the “name” or power of Jesus himself who is at work in the proclamation of the gospel. Faith, therefore, is not a human achievement, but God’s achievement in us. Here, I think, Peter is making the same point Luther makes in his Small Catechism explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed when he says: “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through gospel, etc.” The Holy Spirit and “name of Jesus” indicate the power of God which creates faith in Christ and his forgiveness. Second, the word “God” to which we are turned refers to the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (v. 13), the God who promises salvation to those who trust him, the God who “fulfilled what he foretold through all the prophets that his Messiah would suffer” (v. 18). It is important to Peter’s proclamation that not just God-in-general, but God known in this particular way, is proclaimed (see also vv. 25-26).
Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution) : Walking and Leaping and Praising God (v. 9)
Absent in this text (at least to my reading of it) is any concrete outward response of the people to Peter’s proclamation. Two things might be said about that. First, it may be that God did not yet work faith in Peter’s hearers and so, no outward response of faith is possible. Remember, the reception of the gospel is not under human control. It is neither under the control of Peter the proclaimer nor of the people the hearers. It is important that believers realize that. It is also important to realize that this does not discourage Peter, as a believer, in his call to proclaim the gospel to everyone. Second, it may mean also that the Christian life that proceeds from faith does not come with preconceived instruction about how to live. The life of faith is a life of freedom. Peter’s healing of the lame man is instructive here. Peter simply gives the lame man “perfect health” (v. 16) because that is what he was given “in the name of Jesus” to give. He does not tell the man what to do with that perfect health. Nevertheless, the man immediately jumped up went about using what he was given by “walking and leaping” and, of course, acknowledging where this “perfect health” came from by “praising God” (v. 8). But note contrast with Step 1. The man who received perfect healing did not just “stare” at Peter and the disciples and “wonder about this” marvelous feat as the people did (v. 12). He simply put it to use!