Imagine you’ve gone down to St James’ Village to see the new building for our church plant in Gateshead. And you remember you need a few bits of shopping, so you nip into Netto which is just opposite. And the girl at the till says to you, ‘See that building over there? It’s going to be a church.’ And you say, ‘Really?’ And she says, ‘Apparently some people stumped up over a million pounds for it. Isn’t that amazing?!’ What would you say? Because it’s one of those opportunities to say something that moves the conversation towards Christian things. So if it was me, I might say something like, ‘Well, I happen to be one of those people, and I agree: it is amazing. But I also think it shows that Jesus is involved.’ And my hope would be that she’d say, ‘What do you mean?’
Well we’re going to look at a similar incident tonight in the book of Acts – this book of the Bible about how the gospel spread and how people came to faith in Jesus in those very first days after his resurrection and return to heaven - only this time the amazement was caused not by a building but by a healing. And what we’re going to do tonight is to learn from how the apostle Peter got from people being amazed at a healing to talking about Jesus. So before we go any further, let’s pray:
For those of us who already trust in you, we pray that you would prepare us better to talk about you with others. And for those of us who are still on the outside of faith, looking in and thinking - we pray that you would reveal yourself through this part of the Bible.
In Jesus’ name. Amen
So, please would you turn in the Bible to Acts 3 where we see,
First, THE HEALING (vv1-11)
Let’s read again what we heard earlier. Acts 3, v1:
1 One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. 2 Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. 4 Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, "Look at us!" 5 So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. 6 Then Peter said, "Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." 7 Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man's feet and ankles became strong. 8 He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. 9 When all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. 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. (vv1-11)
Now notice people’s reaction: v10, ‘wonder, and amazement’; v11, ‘astonished’. Just like the girl on the till at Netto. But wonder and amazement and astonishment don’t get people any nearer putting their trust in Jesus and so far, the thought that this healing is something to do with Jesus hasn’t even entered their heads. So Peter has to put it there. What happens next is that:
Secondly, THE HEALING IS INTERPRETED AS THE WORK OF THE RISEN JESUS (vv12-16)
12 When Peter saw this, he said to them: "Men of Israel, [he’s speaking to a Jewish audience in Jerusalem] 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. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. 14 You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. 15 You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16 By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus' name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see. (vv12-16)
So what they could all see was that this man had been healed. That wasn’t up for debate. What was up for debate – and always is in incidents like this - was: what interpretation they should place on the healing. Eg, an atheist might place on it the interpretation that it was just the sudden, chance remission of a life-long illness - some nerves just happened to start firing after 40 years, and the man started walking - amazing, but nothing more than that. But Peter says, ‘No, you have to place a particular interpretation on this event’ And he reminds them that Jesus died on the cross, rose from the dead and is alive in heaven – ‘glorified’ as he puts it in v13. And Peter tells them that he exercised faith in the risen Jesus that this man could be healed. And so he says the result must be attributed not to chance, but to Jesus.
And what we learn here and elsewhere in Acts is that the apostles spoke about two things: 1) above all, they spoke about what Jesus had already done - his life, death and resurrection – which is what they called ‘the gospel’, the good news. But 2) they also spoke about what Jesus was still doing among them, even though he was now back in heaven. And that’s a model for us. Above all, we need to tell people the gospel – the news about what Jesus has already done – his life, death and resurrection and the implications of those events for us. And that’s what Peter ends up doing in this passage. But we also need to tell people about what Jesus is doing among us, even though he’s back in heaven: they need to hear and see from our lives that he’s a living, present, active Lord and Saviour. That, for example, is why in our ‘Invitation Service’ a few weeks ago we interviewed someone up at the front here and asked her, ‘What difference has Jesus made to your life?’ – and why, in the sermon in that service I mentioned some examples of how the Lord Jesus had changed people (like the guy who on coming to faith had started to give up a serious drug-taking habit).
Now that begs the question: are we to expect healings like this in the church today? Are we to expect the risen Lord Jesus to be doing this kind of thing among us? Well, some people are keen to say, ‘No’ because they or others have been hurt by false expectations that the Lord will heal everyone if only they exercise enough faith. Others are keen to say, ‘Yes’ because to say anything else seems to dishonour the Lord and box him in. Well, let’s start back in last week’s passage in Acts 2, v43:
43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. (2.34)
That leads some people to say this: ‘All the miracles in Acts were done by the apostles; and they were unique, because they were the eye-witnesses to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection; so God enabled them to do miracles to underline the authority of what they said; but once they died out there was no further need for miracles, since their message had been authenticated once and for all.’ But the problem with that argument is that there are miracles recorded in the book of Acts done by non-apostles - eg, by Stephen in chapter 6, and Philip in chapter 8. Another problem is 1 Corinthians 12, where the apostle Paul writes:
7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit [ie, some ministry or work enabled by the Holy Spirit] is given for the common good. [Skip to v9:] ... 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers [and so on]... (1 Corinthians 12.7-10)
The point is: that’s a list of things that Paul expected to mark the church until the Lord Jesus comes again. There’s nothing in the context of 1 Corinthians to say that healings would only mark the first generation church. So I take it we should expect healings and therefore pray for them and exercise faith in Jesus for them. But we can’t say that God will heal everyone and every time. There is no promise in the Bible that, if Christians pray and exercise faith in Jesus, God will always heal. God is sovereign, and for reasons we often don’t understand, he sometimes heals and sometimes allows an illness or disability to continue. So, eg, in the New Testament (NT), in 2 Timothy 4.20, we find Paul saying he ‘left Trophimus [one of his colleagues] sick in Miletus’. Well, I assume they prayed and exercised faith that Jesus could heal him. Or in Galatians 4.13 we find Paul saying, ‘As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.’ And I assume he prayed and that others prayed for him and that they exercised faith in Jesus. But God is sovereign over whether he heals and when. And if we don’t take that on board we end up with believers wrongly concluding that they weren’t healed, or a loved one wasn’t healed, because they didn’t have enough faith. And that’s a cruel and false conclusion that only adds more unhappiness to a situation of illness. But having said that, the New Testament does lead us to expect the Lord to bring healings. So we’re to be open to that and to ask for that – while recognising that he is sovereign, and that we don’t know what his plan is for any given situation.
And one lesson from Acts 3 is that when there is a healing, we’re to do our best to help people interpret it as the work of the risen Lord Jesus. So back to Acts 3, and let’s read from v15 again:
15You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16 By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus' name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see. (vv15-16)
Now imagine Peter had been speaking to a 21st century Brit (with no God in his world-view) rather than 1st century Jews (who had the Old Testament (OT) and its revelation of God as their world-view). The 21st century Brit might have replied, ‘Well, that’s just your private, subjective opinion – saying that ‘Jesus did this’ is just the interpretation you place on it – like other people would say it was thanks to their lucky rabbit’s paw.’ But Christians need to say, ‘No, what I’m saying is not just a private, subjective opinion - like the opinion that my lucky rabbit’s paw was responsible for a ‘bit of good luck’. Because there’s no objective evidence that a lucky rabbit’s paw has any power to do anything, or should be linked to anything that happens as its cause. Whereas with Jesus, there is objective evidence that he should be linked to things as their cause – because there’s evidence in the NT that he rose from the dead, and is therefore still alive, and there’s a tie-up between Christians praying to him and things happening.
So, for example, a Christian I know did experience a remarkable healing from a serious illness – remarkable enough for the doctors involved to say to him, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this with this disease’ – which is the language of v10: ‘amazement’. And my friend said, ‘Well, I attribute it to the fact that fellow-Christians have been praying for me.’ And one of the doctors said, ‘Well, believe that if you want to’ - as if to say, ‘Well, something else must be the real explanation – but cling onto that one if it helps you.’ And in the spirit of Peter in Acts 3, my friend didn’t let him get away with that. He said, ‘Well, actually I don’t just believe it because I want to or because it helps me. I believe it because there’s good evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, and I therefore take these test results as further evidence that he’s still answering people’s prayers.’
And we need to follow that example - when people say it’s just ‘luck’ or ‘coincidence’ - or inexplicable. It’s never a ‘knock-down argument’ to attribute something to Jesus in answer to our prayers – people can always attribute things to something else. But we need to do our best to help people interpret things – from healings to buildings – as the work of the risen Jesus. Then,
Thirdly, THE HEALING IS USED AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO PREACH JESUS (vv17-26)
Look at v16 again:
16 By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus' name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see. (v16)
Now imagine Peter had been the front-man of one of those healing ministries you can watch on cable TV. How would v17 have read? I think it would have gone something like this: ‘Now brothers, who’s next? Come forward for healing! Whether it’s a slipped disc or arthritis, or whatever... come on down and be healed!’ But that’s not the appeal that Peter makes. You can see the appeal he makes in a nutshell in v19:
19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out... (v19)
Ie, he’s saying our fundamental problem is not our slipped disc or arthritis or whatever – however painful or life-threatening our situation may be. According to the Bible, the fundamental problem with the human race is that it’s turned away from God and is trying to live without reference to God. Now that has: 1) Consequences in this life: Some of them are just inherent in turning away from God – we experience the consequences of our own sin. But according to the Bible, other consequences in this life are imposed by God – like our mortality, and all the illness and physical problems that are part of it. Mortality is like a blanket judgement that God has laid on the entire human race, both to show us the seriousness of our sin and to wake us up to our need to turn back to him. So, those are the consequences in this life of turning away from God. 2 )The consequences in the next life are eternity without him - and therefore without anything good. So Peter moves on to talk about the fundamental problem, and the solution that Jesus came to bring.
Now we haven’t got time to look from v17 to the end of the chapter in detail. But it’s one of many speeches in Acts where we can learn how to present the gospel from the apostles themselves. Now it’s obviously a summary – Peter must have said a lot more than Luke records. And it’s obviously to Jewish people - so the way he presents the gospel (eg, quoting plenty of the Old Testament) isn’t the way you’d present it to a different audience (eg, of 21st century Brits with no Bible background at all). But in each of these speeches in Acts we can see the fundamental things that should always be there in a faithful presentation of the gospel – eg, in any evangelistic course or book, or in any Holiday Club week presentation of Jesus, and so on. So let me mention three quick things we can learn about the gospel:
1. The fundamental content. We’ve seen this already in vv13-15 – the fundamental content of the gospel is Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the implication that we can be forgiven through it. So look at v17:
17 “Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.” (v17)
Now those are astonishing words because he’s speaking to people who just weeks before had a high degree of responsibility in Jesus being put to death. There may have been people in this very crowd who were in the crowd that shouted for Jesus’ crucifixion. And Peter says, v17, this dreadful thing you did in ignorance of who Jesus really was, v18, was exactly how God acted to forgive you, as planned and foretold by the prophets. Ie, at the cross you see the worst of human sin against God, and simultaneously you see God working to forgive the worst of human sin. So even to this crowd, that carried heavy responsibility for doing away with Jesus, Peter says, ‘There’s no such thing as being beyond forgiveness.’
I was speaking to someone after a service a while ago and he said to me exactly those words: ‘I am beyond forgiveness.’ But that is never true. And I was able to tell him that. And if you are thinking that of yourself tonight, then know that it isn’t true. Know that the worst of human sin, including yours, was paid for at the cross so that it could be forgiven.
2. The fundamental response the gospel calls on us to make is: repent. That’s v19, again:
19 Repent, then, and turn to God...
‘Repent’ literally means ‘change your mind’. It means, ‘Change your mind about who you think is running your life - from thinking, ‘I’m running it,’ to saying, ‘Jesus is my rightful Lord and he will run it from now on.’’ Now people often wonder why, in a Bible passage, the response called for is sometimes ‘repent’, sometimes ‘believe (ie, trust)’ and sometimes both ‘repent and believe’. The answer is that the response God is calling for in the gospel is both ‘repent and believe’ and that where only one of them is mentioned, the other is assumed. Eg, here, Peter says ‘repent’, but because of what he’s said in vv17-18, he assumes people will at the same time trust – believe - that God will forgive them and have them back whatever they’ve done.
3. The fundamental promises of the gospel. Look at v19 one last time:
19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20 and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. 21 He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. (vv19-21)
The gospel makes promises to the person who responds to the Lord Jesus. 1) There are promises of blessing in this life. The first of these is ‘that your sins may be wiped out’ – ie, you will be forgiven. The promise of the gospel is that, when we turn to the Lord Jesus and trust in the saving effect of his death for us on the cross, he forgives us all our past sin – and commits himself to forgive all our future failure as we try imperfectly to live for him from then on. The other blessing in this life mentioned in v19 is ‘that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.’ The word translated ‘times of refreshing’ literally means ‘respite’ or ‘relief’. The assumption is that living without God is a burden – it burdens us with guilt and with the consequences of our own sinful habits and unwise decisions. And the gospel promises that turning to the Lord Jesus and putting our trust in him brings relief from that, as he not only forgives us but helps us to change and make better decisions.
But we must realise that 2) most of what the gospel promises lies in the next life. Ultimately, the vast majority of the blessings which the gospel brings us lie beyond the 2nd coming of Jesus - which is what v21 is about: ‘He [Jesus] must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything...’ ‘Restores everything’ refers to the fact that he will then fully and finally bring in his kingdom where there is no more sin and none of the consequences of sin – as Revelation 2.4 puts it, ‘There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ And the healing of the crippled man with which this chapter began was a tiny foretaste of what it will be like when ‘the time comes for God to restore everything’: the NT miracles were not intended to give the message that believers in this life can always expect full health or healing. The NT miracles were intended to give a glimpse of what believers in the next life will experience. And that’s why Peter doesn’t use this healing to preach the opportunity for healing now. He uses it to preach Jesus and repentance now – knowing that only by being reconciled to Jesus in this life will anyone experience the eternal blessing of the restoration of everything in the next life. And that’s why we must prioritise sharing the gospel above all other Christian commitments – not to the exclusion of other things (like meeting peoples’ physical needs or working for helpful social change), but with the mindset that remembers that those things are to do with a person’s welfare in this life; whereas the gospel is to do with a person’s welfare in this life and eternity.
So as you share the gospel, and answer peoples’ questions about the gospel, ask yourself: does your message sound like the apostles’ message? Because it needs to: because our responsibility is to pass on faithfully the gospel they preached. So, eg, maybe you talk too much about this life and not enough (or even at all) about the next – and your message needs to change to be more in line with the model we’re given in the NT. Or maybe you talk more about trusting in Jesus for forgiveness and tend to shy away from the subject of repentance and the changes his Lordship demands. Well, again, you need to change how you explain things to be more in line with the model we’re given in the NT.
So that’s Acts 3. It’s a piece of ‘model evangelism’ that sets us two main challenges:
• When the Lord Jesus does something remarkable among us – whether it’s a healing, or the giving of Christians towards a building or anything else like that - will we use the occasion to point others to him – by unashamedly interpreting what’s happened as his work?
• And when we have the opportunity to go on and say more about the gospel, will we take it and try as best we can to model our message on the message of the apostles in the NT?