Sunday, June 3, 2012

To Obey God Rather than Humans [Acts 3.1-4.31 & 5.12-42] (22 July 2001)

Accompanying presentation (opens in a new window)

We started our series of nine sermons on Acts three Sundays back. I have been using and will be using a number of slides. There is a lot of material in all of these sermons not only because there is much historical and geographical information, but also because Acts is a pivotal book in the history of God’s dealings with the world. Some of you like taking notes and I do not wish to discourage that. However, jot down only things that stick out to you that are not on the slides. If you want the information on the slides, I can email you the relevant documents. Of course, if you wish to write everything, suit yourselves.

So let us recap what we have learnt so far. From Acts 1 we saw that we live in a new era in which we still need to learn to live in and walk in the Spirit; that Jesus calls no one without sending him or her back into the world as his ambassador; and that the life driven by the Spirit is one in which there are no strict patterns, in which what worked yesterday might not work today, and in which we are called to be ever sensitive to new ways of presenting the gospel.

From Acts 2 we saw that Peter’s sermon introduces two crucial differences in the expected Jewish timeline. First, the Messiah is rejected and killed by his own people rather than being accepted and then leading a violent revolt against Israel’s then primary political enemy—Rome. Second, the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit happen while Israel still remains under foreign rule. This implied that resurrection life is possible today and is a way of living that demonstrates that death has been defeated, that God’s new era is pressing in on this present era, and that to live in this new era is to undermine all the values of this present era that are not in accordance with God’s character.

Today we are dealing a series of events that Luke records in Acts 3, 4, & 5. The action is still in Jerusalem. It is a few days after the momentous event of Pentecost, when the Spirit was poured out in an unprecedented manner on the early church. Peter and John go to the temple for the afternoon prayer. They enter the temple through the Beautiful Gate, which is seen in the slide. Also known as the Golden Gate, it was the easternmost entrance to Jerusalem and led directly into the temple precincts. Since Peter and John enter from the East, they might have spent the night at Bethany, which is South-West of Jerusalem, as can be seen in the map.

The actual encounter between the apostles and the lame man took place in the temple precincts, at Solomon’s Portico. In the next slide we see Herod’s Temple, which dominated Jerusalem along with Herod’s Palace and the Antonia Fortress. Solomon’s Portico was nearest the Beautiful Gate at the Eastern end of the temple area. In the text for today we will see that the early Christians had the habit of gathering at Solomon’s Portico. This indicates two things. First, the apostles did not see going to the temple as being contradictory to their faith in Jesus. How could they? Jesus himself had made a practice of going to the temple when he was in Jerusalem, and to synagogues when he was outside Jerusalem. Second, the fact that they went to the temple at designated hours of prayer indicates that they saw temple attendance as being one way of expressing their faith in Jesus.

So what does God have to say to us today through these events that Luke has recorded? For that we need first to hear what Luke recorded. Since we have an extremely large portion of text for today, I have asked Adelina and Alice to assist me in reading.


Now there is a lot that I could explain or preach on from the text we have heard. However, for NUPC today I believe God would have us consider first the miracle itself, second, the relationship the miracle has to Peter’s sermon, and third, what all of this means for us today.

So let us consider the miracle. Peter and John are walking to the temple, as they were accustomed to doing. Quite out of the blue the lame man asks them for alms. Peter immediately moves to proclaim healing of the man in the name of Jesus. What do you think provokes such boldness in Peter? I think, first, that Peter realized the proverb “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Peter understood that if he gave the man alms, the man would be asking for alms the next day also. Peter realized the man’s dilemma.

Second, the man recognized that he was in need though having been lame since birth for over forty years he could not imagine a long-term solution. Peter, however, understood that the way out of the man’s vicious cycle was through the long-term solution of healing. Peter recognized the man’s true physical need.

Third, Peter remembered that Jesus had healed a number of people with all sorts of ailments. He recalled that Jesus had accompanied his miracles with two remarkable statements: “If I, by the Spirit of God, cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come among you” and “with God nothing is impossible.” And Jesus’ miracles seemed to bear out these statements. Yes, Peter remembered Jesus’ words and deeds.

Fourth, Peter knew that only recently he had experienced the outpouring of the Spirit—the same Spirit by which Jesus had done his miracles. And Jesus had said that the giving of the Spirit was so that Jesus’ disciples could do greater works than Jesus had done. So Peter knew that, in this age of the Spirit, God would heal people just as he had done during the ministry of Jesus. Peter knew that the Spirit healed people.

Fifth, the man could have asked anyone else for money. There were certainly many people at that time since it was the hour of afternoon prayer. So Peter took the lame man’s act of asking John and him for money as a sign that God was ready to heal the man. Peter acted when he recognized a sign from God.

So with the assurance that God was moving to do in this man’s life what he had done in the life of others during the ministry of Jesus, Peter speaks the words of healing. Unlike Jesus, however, who pronounced healing directly, Peter is careful to speak the words in the name of Jesus. Now the phrase “in the name of Jesus” does not mean that Jesus’ name has some kind of power attached to it. Rather, the phrase is a Jewish idiom that can be paraphrased “by the authority of Jesus.” So when we speak “in the name of Jesus” we are not saying some magical formula but are claiming to be acting as Jesus’ agents. In Acts 3, it is by the authority of Jesus that the healing is accomplished for it is he who has poured out the Spirit of healing.

But does the miracle have anything to do with Peter’s sermon? Many commentators, scholars, and preachers approach the miracle as though Peter merely it as an excuse to preach the gospel. However, in order to understand either the miracle or the sermon, we must understand both and also that both actually go together. Peter was not walking around with a prepared evangelistic sermon that he just whipped out of his pocket. Rather, something about the miracle—or rather what the miracle indicates—made Peter say what he did.

The crucial sentence to understanding how Peter relates the healing to Jesus’ resurrection is in Acts 3.13. Peter says, “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus.” We often read these words in the bible—especially in the Old Testament. And we often hear these words in our worship songs or in sermons. However, what do we think these words mean? It means much, much more than just a statement that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob worshipped the one true God.

So what in the world was Peter driving at? In order to understand that we need to briefly consider the stories in Genesis about the three patriarchs.

When we encounter Abraham in Genesis, he is already an old man. God asks him to leave his birth land and go to a land, which was to be his inheritance. A few chapters later Abraham reminds God that he has no heirs and so all the talk of inheritance is quite pointless. He is almost a hundred years old at that point and his wife, Sarah, is ninety. What possibility was there that they would have children? Who has heard of a ninety-year old woman bearing children? There was no hope of her ever becoming a natural mother. And yet, the bible tells us that this barren old woman did bear a son.

When we encounter Isaac we see that he gets married to Rebecca. They love each other a lot. But we read that Rebecca was without children. But we also read that Isaac prayed for children and God responded by giving them twins—Esau and Jacob. Once again we have an occasion when barrenness was overcome with life by the direct intervention of God.

Jacob, deceived into marrying the sister of the woman he loved, responds by hating Leah and loving Rachel. But we read that Leah bore many children while Rachel was barren. But once again we read that barrenness was overcome. We have three generations of barrenness overcome by direct acts of God.

The phrase “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” is a way of alluding to these stories in Genesis in which we read of God’s power to overcome barrenness. And given that barrenness was the supreme symbol of death for the Jewish people, the phrase is a statement of faith that God has power even over death. So when Peter uses the phrase, he is being a very good orator. To a Jewish crowd that was astonished by the fact that the lame man was healed, Peter alludes to these stories in Genesis as if to ask, “How can you, who are Jews and the heirs of stories that demonstrate God’s power over the forces of death, how can you be surprised by the fact that this man has been healed? Is it not only to be expected that this God who could and did reverse barrenness, not only can but does heal?”

With these words said, Peter draws the attention of the listeners to Jesus. He calls Jesus God’s servant, the holy and righteous one, and the author of life. In the context of healing, the third term is the one that is relevant. Jesus is the author of life—that is not only the one who has authority over life but also the one by and in whom our lives are scripted. In other words, he has authority over our lives.

Then why in the world do we still suffer? Does God still heal today or has that stopped?

Peter says, “The faith that is through Jesus has given [the lame man] this perfect health in the presence of all of you.” In the Gospels, Jesus heals because he is empowered by God’s Spirit. And it is the same Spirit that is poured out on the church. So unless we have a clear indication from God that miracles have ceased, we should assume that the Spirit still heals. And frankly, the bible contains no indication that miracles would stop at any point. 

So does that mean that, as long as we have faith, God will heal us? Isn’t that what Peter says?

In 1989, while playing soccer, I was kicked in my left knee. And to this day my left knee remains injured. I have often prayed for healing. And some of these times, I had utmost confidence that God would heal me. Yet there are still days when my knee goes out of whack and my mobility is severely constrained.

Contrast my situation with this story: After having believed that God still healed, a friend of mine came under the influence of a philosophy professor and disbelieved. Then one day, when he was at a youth retreat, one of the adult supervisors had a heart attack while swimming. They pulled him out of the water and realized that he was not breathing and had no pulse. While the dying man’s son went off by himself to prepare for the inevitability of his father’s death, the other supervisors called 911. While waiting for the paramedics, my friend found himself with the dying man, surrounded by stunned and helpless teenagers. The helplessness of being there with boys and girls as a man lay dying suddenly brought up his old habits. He placed his hand on the man’s chest and said, “In the name of Jesus breathe!”

When the paramedics got there, they found the man sitting up and breathing. They took him to the emergency room and told the people concerned that one of the valves in the man’s heart had flipped from one side to the other. When they asked the doctors how the problem had been fixed, they said that they had no idea since fixing such a problem required physically pushing the valve back.

So, while I remain unhealed, this man was healed. And frankly, he was in no position to express faith in Jesus! What then do we make of Peter’s words? What is it that led to healing in the case of the lame man and the man in my friend’s story? And what is it that prevents my healing?

We long for an answer to these questions. All of us either ourselves suffer physically or know someone who does. And we long for healing. We crave wholeness. And if only, if only, we had a trusted way of assuring such healing! But thankfully we don’t.

Thankfully because if we did have a surefire approach the temptation to reduce our relationship with God to a formula would be too great for most of us to resist. Thankfully because we have now no option but to plead with God as people who do not deserve his touch. Thankfully because when God refuses to answer we can live up to the true meaning of Israel—one who struggles with God. Thankfully because we cannot help but admit that healing depends on God’s initiative and not on ours.

And he is still the God who in the past overcame barrenness. He is still the God who in the past raised Jesus from the dead. He is still the God who healed the lame man. He is still the God who healed the man at the retreat.

And with that confidence, with that assurance, with that boldness I ask those of you who feel led for healing to come forward. Let us in this way obey God rather than humans, obey the author of live rather than the dictates of a culture of death. As God created each of us uniquely, so also we believe he has a unique way of dealing with each of us. I am here ready for the Holy Spirit’s prompting regarding how to respond in each of your situations. And as people come forward, I request the rest of you to pray for them and for me.

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