Acts (Part 06) - Peter's Lame Man Session
Hundreds of people pressed on Peter and John as they made their way over the temple area called Solomon’s Portico. They were astounded at the miracle, but their amazement seemed to concentrate less on the healed beggar and more on Peter and John who administered such power. Peter matches their astonishment with his own as he begins his talk with them asking, “Why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?” Peter’s purpose is quickly to turn the people’s attention to Christ.
Peter repeats for this crowd the same gospel points that he emphasized in his first sermon during Pentecost. He tells them first that Jesus is from God (3:13). In emphasizing the one true God in which the Jews believed (“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers…”), Peter draws their attention to the authority of this God and what that authority means in then “glorif[ying] his servant Jesus.” This is the same type of action as God did in authorizing Christ at his baptism and his transfiguration. This glorifying meant that God was with Jesus, approved of Jesus, and authorized his life and work. But Peter does not leave it there. He quickly moves to his next point which is that not only is Jesus from God, but Jesus also is God (3:14-15). Peter does this by means of two titles. First, he calls Jesus the Holy and Righteous One. In the Old Testament we learn that the Holy One is a title of God (Leviticua 11:44-45 and Psalm 78:41). (We also notice that the Righteous One is a title of the Messiah in the OT [Isaiah 53:11]; thus, Peter combines the ideas, insisting that the Messiah is God.) Second, Peter uses a play on expressions to specify the authoring of life (God’s activity) in Jesus. He argues that the people asked for a murderer, a taker of life (Barabbas) to be given life, while they asked that the author of life (Messiah God) have his life be taken away.
The third gospel point of Peter’s sermon that matches his first sermon is that although he was killed, yet now he lives. God raised him from the dead (3:15). And here Peter adds that they (he and John as well as the other apostles) are witnesses of this resurrection. Peter always emphasizes that he and the others are witnesses. In his four opportunities of presenting the gospel that are recorded in Acts, he never fails to mention that they were witnesses of the resurrection, clearly demonstrating that he took Christ’s instruction to be his witnesses to heart (1:8). Those four times in which Peter claims eyewitness to the resurrection are in the Pentecost sermon (2:32), here in the temple (3:15), at his second arrest (5:32), and in his introduction of the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius (10:39, 41).
The fourth matching gospel point is that Jesus is the Messiah (Christ) (3:18, 20). Peter calls Jesus the Christ—the Savior—and says that this Savior was appointed for them.
Peter also makes two important application points. One is in 3:19 as he tells them to “Repent and turn.” This is the same step of entrance to the kingdom as prescribed by Jesus (“Repent and believe” Mark 1:15) and as spoken by Peter in his first sermon (“Repent and be baptized” Acts 2:38). Notice the formula is the same. In 2:38, Peter said (1) repent and (2) be baptized for the purpose of (3) forgiveness of your sins. Here in 3:19, Peter says (1) repent and (2) turn for the purpose (3) that your sins may be blotted out. Elements (1) and (3) are identical in each call to the gospel. Therefore element (2) should also be regarded as the same, giving further support that Peter’s intent in using the words “be baptized” in 2:38 was not a call to the water rite but rather a call to give themselves over to Christ and his kingdom.
Finally, Peter mentions that the promise to Abraham of blessing to the world is fulfilled through Jesus (3:25-26). And that blessing was coming first to the Jews.
Peter introduces an interesting concept in the middle of this sermon that requires some thoughtful consideration. Regarding Jesus, Peter had told them, “You delivered over and denied…you denied the Holy and Righteous One…you killed the Author of life” (3:13-15, emphasis added). But in verse 17 he seems to back off his attack somewhat, saying, “And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.” The impression here is almost as if Peter is saying, “You crucified Jesus, but don’t worry. You acted in ignorance, and so God won’t really blame you.” But almost immediately Peter tells them to repent (3:19). But if Peter is specifically telling them to repent from this sin of crucifying Jesus, for what reason does he soften the crime first, understandingly saying that they acted in ignorance?
Let’s examine the matter in greater perspective. Two months earlier, these Jews gathered outside the temple at the northwestern point to hear Pilate say he found no fault with Jesus. They and their rulers continued to call for his crucifixion. Pilate symbolically washed his hands saying he was innocent of the man’s blood. And the Jews cried back, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25). So if appears that they did accept responsibility for Jesus’ death. But then, how could Peter have said they acted in ignorance? Claiming responsibility doesn’t sound much like ignorance.
However, as Jesus is raised on the cross, he calls out to God saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34, emphasis added). Jesus says two things here. He agrees with Peter that they acted in ignorance. He also says that God should regard their ignorance so that this sin is not held to their account. This is an amazing statement! It is even more amazing as we read back just a few verses when Jesus is on the road to Golgotha he turns to a group of mourning women and says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us’” (Luke 23: 28-30). From the language of these verses we associate Christ’s prophesied event with the destruction that would occur to Jerusalem in AD 70. And we know Jesus called out in Matthew 23 woes upon the Pharisees saying, “See, your house is left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:38).
How now are we to interpret all these seeming conflicting statements? The Jews claimed responsibility for Jesus’ death, and they did, in fact, have him crucified. Killing the Son of God is very much a sin. Yet Jesus calls to God from the cross, asking that they be forgiven for this sin. Further, Jesus explains that the sin should not be held to their account because they were acting ignorantly. Peter agrees that they acted in ignorance in Acts 3:17. Yet, Jesus also declares judgment would come to Jerusalem, and this judgment is precisely for the sin of rejecting Christ.
Let’s consider a few more passages. In Acts 17:29-31, Paul is speaking to Gentiles in Athens. He tells them, “The times of ignorance God overlooked.” In other words, God didn’t hold Gentiles to account for sins in the past because they were ignorant of the fact that the deeds were sins. Is this really a biblical concept?
Romans 5:12-14 seems to shine a floodlight on the discussion. Paul here argues, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come” (emphasis added). Paul provides support for our understanding of Christ’s words from the cross and Peter’s intimation. Though a person commits a sin, it “is not counted” against the person who acted in ignorance.
But Paul goes on to state in verse 14 that death still reigned from Adam until Moses when the Law was given. Why would death, the punishment for sin, reign if sin is not counted where there is no law? The answer is that although these people were ignorant of what would be provided later with the giving of the Law, their deaths must have been the judgment for knowledgeable (not ignorant) sin. And that answer is given in Romans 1:18-20: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (emphasis added). This is what most Bible scholars call general revelation. Note that God has revealed the truth about himself to all his creation. Notice also that all his creation clearly perceive this truth. And God’s purpose in his revelation was so that they would not be ignorant and that, therefore, rejection of this God who is clearly perceived would be knowledgeable sin for which they have no excuse of ignorance.
We can now summarize these points discussed.
Point 1 – God has given knowledge of himself (power=authority; divine nature=morality) to all creation so that rebellion against his authority and morality condemns all to death.
Point 2 – God did not count it sin for people transgressing laws of God when God had not revealed these truths to them.
Point 3 – God did not hold the Jews accountable for sins against Jesus (crucifixion—rejection of him as Messiah) when acting in ignorance.
Although our consideration of Scripture leads to these points, a problem remains—why does Jesus call out for (and eventually execute in AD 70) judgment against the Jews in the destruction and desolation of Jerusalem (specifically, the temple) if he asked from the cross that God would not hold the Jews’ actions of ignorance to account?
If we structure this problem in logical format, we could present it as follows:
Premise 1: God does not judge (hold to account) those whose sins are done in ignorance.
Premise 2: The Jews acted in ignorance when they crucified Jesus.
Premise 3: But God did judge the Jews in AD 70 for rejecting Christ.
Conclusion: The Jews must have moved from ignorance to knowledge concerning Jesus while continuing to reject him.
Certainly the conclusion satisfies all three premises. However, it assumes something significant. It assumes that a person can move from spiritual ignorance to spiritual knowledge without benefit of regeneration. Is that possible? Does the Bible support such a possibility?
Here is the logical argument:
Premise 1: Moving from spiritual ignorance to spiritual knowledge assumes discernment of spiritual truth by the spiritually dead.
Premise 2: The Bible specifically states that the spiritually dead cannot, on their own, discern spiritual truth. (1 Corinthians 2:14 – “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”)
Conclusion: God must provide revelatory truth (enlightenment) to the spiritually dead beyond general revelation but prior to regeneration.
This conclusion is the basis of what I call faith electionism—the belief that election is contingent on the natural assent of the soul to God’s revealed truth. Obviously, this is problematic for the Calvinistic position. According to Calvinism, revelatory enlightenment from God beyond general revelation comes only after regeneration. I believe that idea to be flawed for a couple of reasons. First, I think that one reason the Calvinist holds such a position is to protect the fact that salvation is all of God without the help or cooperation of an individual toward that salvation. However, faith electionism is no Arminian or semi-Pelagian exercise in a generated faith through individual consideration based on some ability received through a common prevenient grace. In faith electionism, salvation begins with God and is all of God. It is God who brings particular enlightenment to an individual based on that individual’s natural assent to previous enlightenment of God’s truth in revelation-response steps all the way back to the enlightenment of general revelation. Natural assent to God’s revealed truth is no work, as Paul makes clear in Romans 4:4-5. Only in rebellion against God’s revealed truth is a work of the individual involved. And for that rebellion (denial of God’s revealed truth) God moves away from the individual (Romans 1:24, 26, 28).
The second Calvinistic concern is that for an individual to respond to spiritual truth, that individual must not be spiritually dead. Therefore, regeneration must first take place. My argument here is that the Bible’s (particularly 1 Cor 2:14’s) declaration of the inability of the spiritual dead is that there is nothing in the spiritually dead person to initiate spiritual discernment. However, God’s initiation of revelatory enlightenment provides the spiritual discernment necessary to understand what is revealed. Obviously a regenerated person can understand the full scope of revealed spiritual truth through God’s Word. However, the unregenerate can understand only up to the point of what has been revealed. Thus, a person given no particular revelatory enlightenment by God may still in his spiritually dead condition understand the spiritual enlightenment given through general revelation so that he/she is without excuse.
Romans 1:18-20 provides the Scriptural basis for revelation to all unregenerate people. Acts 17:30 tells us that the Gentiles were in ignorance about the laws of God. This means, then, that the Jews were not in ignorance. God provided revelatory enlightenment to the Jews as a people. Yet still, some who received this revelatory enlightenment, denied or rebelled against it. From those God moved away, and those will spend eternity apart from God. Matthew 12 provides us with an instance in which certain few Pharisees came to Jesus and committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit by attributing his work to Satan. They knew (were not ignorant) that it was the Holy Spirit’s work. How did they know if spiritual things cannot be understood by the spiritually dead? They know by revelatory enlightenment by God without the benefit of spiritual regeneration. They rebelled against that enlightenment, committing a crime for which they would not be forgiven.
So we see that the Bible does provide us example of revelatory enlightenment to all people, classes of people, and even individuals prior to regeneration. Through natural assent of the soul response, God moves closer. Through the act of a rebellious will, God moves away. This, I believe, is the only satisfactory way to understand Christ’s cry from the cross, asking forgiveness for those in ignorance rejecting him, yet later issue judgment against those same people for rejecting him. The answer has to be a change from ignorance to knowledge apart from regeneration.