The Sign and the Sermon
Acts 3:1 – 26
The Sign and the Sermon
Communities in Contrast
Have you ever been in that, rather awkward and embarrassing situation where, someone does something for another person that you really should have done, and it’s not deliberate, but them doing it just makes it all the more obvious that you didn’t do it?
Like a little example might be that someone comes into your home, or into your office and you don’t think to offer them a drink, but then someone else from your family, or someone you work with comes in, “would anyone like a drink?” “Oh yeah, thanks, that would be great!”
If no one had offered it would be no big deal, but because they offered and you didn’t, it’s kind of obvious that they offered and you didn’t.
Have you ever had the experience? Is that just me? Kathy’s just much more hospitable and gracious than I am, so if you’re coming to visit make sure you come when she’s at home or you won’t get offered a drink!
In assembling the material for this book, which Luke, the author calls “an orderly account”, it’s no accident that the situation of this paralysed man who’s forced to beg in order to survive, is presented immediately after the description of the early church and their care for one another.
God’s historic, covenant community had failed in its obligation to care for those who were unable to provide for themselves, and their failure was so stark, that this man was reduced to begging, outside the temple of God. And at the entrance which was called the “Beautiful Gate”, there lay a man who’s situation was anything but beautiful.
But did you notice the contrast? On the one hand, is the old covenant community of Israel, which had broken down, because of sin and selfishness,
Because religiosity had overtaken a genuine heartfelt desire to honour God and serve his people.
Because people had turned their backs on God.
But on the other hand, we’ve got this new community,
This new work that God is doing in peoples’ lives, or really, the fulfilment of the old work God was doing,
But did you notice how different this new community is?
We read the end of chapter 2 last week, look with me from verse 44, All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.
Here’s a picture of God’s people showing the kind of care that God had always intended his people would show.
The point isn’t that the Christian community is better than the Jewish community,
God’s expectations for his people hadn’t changed, but finally we see the kind of community that God desires.
Here is a group of people who understand that what God is saying and doing now, is a continuation of what God has always been saying, and what God has always been doing.
Kind of makes you want to sit up and take notice doesn’t it?
If God has been saying the same things for centuries, we’d do well to make sure we’re hearing them.
But of course, the message of the book of Acts, the message of the church in its first days, is not that Jesus has come primarily to heal people, although he did heal, and does heal.
It’s not even that the church’s core business is about selling all their possessions, although that’s a pretty convincing sign that something is going on in their hearts,
The church’s core business, their mission in Acts, is to point people to Jesus, allowing him to be at work in their lives in whatever way he chooses!
Some people die because of their faith in Jesus,
Some people are physically healed because of their faith in Jesus.
What the early church thought it was on about, is highlighted, in this chapter, in the sign that’s performed, and then in the sermon that’s given by way of explanation.
But from the very beginning, we see that the church is fulfilling the desires God’s had for his people, all along.
We see the continuity in God’s plans for his people.
So let’s have a think about this sign,
Here is a man, entirely dependent on others. If times are tough, if there’s a global financial crisis, and people don’t want to give, he goes without.
Peter and John, these two apostles, who had been with Jesus when he had miraculously healed people, they have no money to give him, but Peter speaks and the man is healed. Instantly.
3 times in 2 verses, Luke tells us that this man who had never taken a step in his life, was walking! Luke, who was a doctor, remember, wants us to be very clear how dramatic this event is: Muscles are created. A 40 year old brain learns how to walk, in an instant.
As a parent, you read all these books about your child’s development, and all the things that have to happen for them to learn how to walk:, balance, motor control, muscle tension, co- ordination, all those things that took our brains a year or more to perfect, this man has mastered in an instant!
In chapter 2 Peter said to the crowd, Jesus was accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, and here Jesus’ apostles, those who were witnesses of his life, ministry, death and resurrection, are similarly accredited by God.
But they’re not accredited in their own right are they?
It’s not that Peter and John are particularly powerful,
It’s not in their name, that this man is healed,
They are accredited as witnesses of Christ,
That is, their action, shows Christ’s power.
So in fact, God is still, accrediting Jesus to the people, by miracles, wonders and signs, it’s just that now it’s the apostles performing those signs, in Jesus’ name.
Can you see how, insignificant Peter and John are in this sign? God the Father, the God of Israel, is still holding Jesus up as the centrepiece of his plans for the world. He is still demonstrating the power of Jesus.
That’s the sign. It’s miraculous but the sign itself isn’t up for debate. Everyone knew this man had never taken a step in his life, but now he’s walking and jumping and praising God.
Location, Location, Location
So what do we learn from the sermon, that explains the sign?
Well, it may be a little unusual, but let’s first consider where it happens.
Any self-respecting real estate agent will tell you, location is everything, and Luke records the location for us.
Verse 11, While the beggar held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade.
The temple of God in Jerusalem had been built by King Solomon, in about 966 BC.
The opening of the temple was one of the greatest moments in the history of the nation of Israel.
God was living among his people,
You could go and worship God in the place where his presence dwelt in a unique way.
Here was a new focus, for everything that was tied up in the relationship between God and his people.
It seemed that this would be the place where God would act,
This was where you wanted to be, if you wanted to be part of what God was doing in the world.
But then in 586 BC, Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians.
The temple is destroyed.
Except that in the first century AD, the Roman historian Josephus tells us that there is one part of that original temple building remaining, Solomon’s Colonnade.
From where we stand it’s a bit hard to tell whether that’s totally true or not, Whether the actual stone and mortar of Solomon’s Colonnade really did date from the time of Solomon, but there’s absolutely no doubt about one thing, the people called it Solomon’s Colonnade, because in their national consciousness, here was a connection to those great high points in their history,
It was a piece of architecture that highlighted the continuity of God’s dealings with his people.
It’s a bit like if we wanted to launch a community movement, or even a new political party, that we wanted to be truly South Australian, one of the things we could do would be to go down to the Old Gum Tree at Glenelg, where the colony of South Australia was proclaimed in1836, and, launch our movement there.
Even the Government acknowledges that particular tree might not be the exact tree where the ceremony took place all those years ago, and also that now there’s more concrete, plastic and steel in the tree than actual tree, But still if we were to stand there and launch something new, that location would set the context,
That monument would be a filter through which people would hear what we say.
No one would miss the point that our location would make.
Whether it’s the right tree or not is immaterial, it’s a powerful symbol of the beginning of South Australia, and it speaks loudly.
So the place where Peter and John and crowd were standing, was a gigantic illustration, a reminder, that God’s plans and purposes cannot be thwarted,
That since God wants to dwell with his people, nothing is going to stop him.
That God has been about his work, and continues to be about his work, bringing the same plans to fulfilment.
And so in this, symbolic location, Peter preaches a sermon, that says, pretty much the same thing as the location does: The God who has always been at work, is still at work.
The story so far
And just like in his speech at Pentecost, Peter goes back into the Scriptures to show that the God of Israel is at work through Jesus, even now after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension.
Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus.
Peter deliberately calls Jesus the servant of God, to make sure his hearers make the connection with the Suffering Servant described by the prophet Isaiah centuries earlier.
This servant was someone who God promised would take on himself the sins of the people, and open the way for peace with God.
And who glorified this servant, Jesus?
Who lifted him up and has shown him to be the long-awaited Messiah?
None other than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
I presume you did that thing in school where, you were divided up into teams, and there were 2 captains, and they each had to pick who was going to be on their team? If you were like me you were always the last one picked, so that’s not a happy memory! but if Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were on a team, that’s the team you wanted to be on!
Every devout Jewish person wanted to be in agreement with these 3,
Wanted to be the heir, of these 3,
Wanted to walk in the footsteps, of these 3.
Peter says, it’s their God, who glorified Jesus. So in rejecting Jesus, and disowning Jesus before Pilate, you’ve put yourselves at odds with your greatest national heroes, and with their God, he says.
You’re out of step with the God who walked with his people throughout their history.
You’re God has been at work, despite you.
That’s a scary warning isn’t it? That God might be at work, great! But that God might be at work, despite us? That’s frightening!
That we who are God’s people might actually be the one whom God has to work around!
It’s a little bit ironic, The crowd had handed Jesus over to be killed while demanding the release of a murderer.
They got a murderer be released, and they themselves were murderers! But what they didn’t know, was that they were fulfilling what God had already determined.
Such is God’s power and sovereignty, that even those he’s working despite his people, they are fulfilling his plans and purposes.
Verse 18, this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.
Jesus suffered, taking on himself the due penalty for people’s rebellion against God,
To open up the way for us to know God,
For us to have a relationship with God,
For us to be forgiven.
The story to come
So even though they’re all standing in a place intimately associated with the history of God’s dealings with his people,
Peter doesn’t leave the crowd with the story of what God has done, he lifts their eyes to what God has in store for his people.
The wiping out of sin, verse 19,
Times of refreshing that come from the Lord,
The coming of Christ from heaven, verse 20,
And the restoration of everything, verse 21,
And taking hold of those great promises, hinges on 1 verse, verse 19, repent, then, and turn to God
That is, turn around!
Turn their backs on the previous ways, on their previous attitudes to Jesus, and to acknowledge Jesus as God acknowledges Jesus,
To see Jesus as the fulfillment of everything God has said and done, just as Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you, verse 22
God’s work, started in the past, fulfilled in Christ, will be completed in the future, at the time of his return from heaven, when the greatest blessings imaginable will be realised by everyone who trusts in him for the forgiveness of their sins.
Those promises in verses 19 – 21 are great promises to hang on to. Great promises to fix your eves on, when life is hard, or when God seems powerless.
That is the story to come.
What about us?
So what do we do with all of this?
How do this sign and this sermon, these great promises, shape our lives?
Well, first of all, should we expect this miraculous healing of all our sickness now, or is that something that’s still to come?
There’s a story that Thomas Aquinas was summoned to the Vatican one day, and Pope Innocent III proudly takes him on a tour of all the Vatican’s priceless treasures. The Pope says, “No longer can Peter say, “Silver and gold, have I none””, To which Aquinas replies, “And no longer can he say, ‘rise up and walk’”
Is that our problem?
Are we just too comfortable,
And so God no longer heals people through faith in Jesus?
Well, we may be too comfortable, but I’d want to say that I believe God is still healing people through faith in Jesus.
People in this church I know have been praying for Richard and Hannah’s father, Tim, confident that God can heal him of the cancer in his body.
There have been a number of times the Drs have said “we think he has days to live”, but slowly and steadily Tim’s health has improved, his body has fought back, And so we’re still praying that in God’s mercy, the day will come when Tim can leave the hospital, and come home to his family, free from cancer and free from the terrible complications that this wretched disease has brought.
Absolutely God can still heal people today. There’s a family hanging on to that truth, and rightly so.
But even in the New Testament it wasn’t always this dramatic, miraculous healing.
We know that the Apostle Paul performed miraculous healings during his ministry, but it appears that he didn’t heal his colleague Epaphroditus, who was so ill that he almost died (Phil. 2:27), and Paul says that he “left Trophimus sick in Miletus”, again, apparently, without healing him.
So healing is not universal, and even these dramatic healings seem mostly to be clustered around new beginnings, significant moments in salvation history, where the gospel moves forwards. These dramatic signs accompany and testify to the good news of Jesus, as the gospel takes its first steps into new places.
So nowhere are we told that God will always heal, until, Acts 3:21, the time comes from God to restore everything, as he promised long ago, that is, at the return of Christ.
That’s when healing will be universal and instantaneous.
Understanding the OT
There’s another lesson I think we can take away from Peter’s sermon. In God, Church and Me, our new members course, on Monday night, we were having a bit of a discussion about how we often find the Old Testament just that little bit harder to understand, than the New Testament.
A little harder to work with,
A little bit harder to apply to our lives,
Anyone who’s ever started reading the Bible from page 1 has probably found that.
And there are a few reasons for that, I think. Between us and the situation of the New Testament is about 2000 years, and a significant cultural gap, but we can bridge those gaps,
The Old Testament though, is even further back in history, and even further removed from us culturally: Nomadic nations, desert tribes, rituals and practices that to us are strange and foreign.
But I think Acts, chapter 3 especially, gives us great confidence when it comes to reading and understanding the Old Testament, because this passage lays out for us a number of the big building blocks of the storyline that runs right through the Old Testament, as God works his plans and purposes out, towards the coming of Jesus.
God was always planning on saving his people through one of Abraham’s offspring.
God’s plan was always to raise up from among his people, a leader, a prophet, one who would speak God’s very words.
God was always going to deal with sin and its consequences through a Suffering Servant as described by Isaiah,
So when we’re delving into the pages of the Old Testament, and we read the story of Abraham, and the promises that God made to him, and his contorted family tree, It’s because of Jesus that those things are significant,
It’s through Jesus that we understand that story.
When we read the stories of Moses, through whom God made himself known to the people, who led the people of God, and, yet fell short, On hearing that Jesus is the prophet like Moses who God provides for his people, then the account of Moses, the earlier shadow of Christ, suddenly tells us a lot more about God, and sin, and salvation, and sacrifice, and what it means that God lived among his people as a man, and now dwells in his people by his Spirit.
We read Isaiah’s strange prophecy, about a servant, who is described as being like a lamb, but being judged and punished, When we understand Jesus as the Suffering Servant, we can make sense of what was said centuries before.
We understand what it means that Jesus died for us.
When we understand that all these promises of God are fulfilled in Jesus, the Old Testament seems a lot less foreign, and a lot less distant.
If you have an hour sometime this week, read through Acts chapter 3 again, and at each point where the Old Testament is quoted, or alluded to, flick back to those references and read them for yourself, seeing how Jesus fulfils them, seeing how we live in their fulfilment, and seeing perhaps more clearly, what God was saying in those centuries before.
It won’t take you more than an hour, but if you’re someone who’s been a little cautious or even nervous about understanding the Old Testament, that might be something you find helpful.
On the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, German President Richard Von Weizsacker addressed the German parliament. His theme: Anyone who closes their eyes to the past, is blind to the present.
Anyone who closes their eyes to the past, is blind to the present.
Let’s not be like those in Peter’s day, who closed their eyes to what God has done in the past, and miss what he’s doing in the present.