Studies in the Book of Acts

Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.

Acts 3:12-19

God of Abraham (3:12-13)

With the healed beggar still holding him, Peter began speaking to the crowd. The first matter he dealt with was the surprise of the onlookers. It was essential that they understood by whose power this healed beggar was standing. The healing was caused by the power of Jesus, the one whom God had chosen and glorified (3:13). To place this event within the context of the Jews’ belief system, Peter referred to God as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers” (3:13).

By beginning his speech with the greeting, “Fellow Israelites,” and referring to God in the way he did, Peter was attempting to speak from the Jews’ point of view. He was also making an important point about Jesus. This man whom they ignorantly crucified was intimately associated with God and the fathers of the nation in an important way.

To say that God was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was to refer to a time-honored way by which Jews spoke of God. Indeed, God had introduced himself to Moses at the burning bush as the God of the fathers (Exodus 3:6154:5). It underscored the Jewish nation’s self-identification as the people of God from ancient times. This formulaic way of speaking about God was seen throughout the Old Testament, and emphasized Israel as a sanctified nation (1 Kings 18:361 Chronicles 29:18). By New Testament times the phrase “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” connected the glory of ancient Israel to the Jews’ concept of themselves as God’s remnant people (Mark 12:26Acts 7:32).

“God’s Servant” (3:13)

Peter called Jesus “God’s servant,” echoing the theme of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (Isaiah 42-53). The most direct part of that prophecy in Isaiah began with the words, “My servant…will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted” (52:13). Jesus’ title as “Servant” is only here (3:13, 26) and in one other place in Acts (4:27, 30). But the Servant Songs of Isaiah, especially the section 52:13-53:12, had a great influence on the New Testament. The New Testament contains a number of quotations from these songs. [Matthew 8:1712: 18-21Luke 22:37John 12:38Acts 8:32Romans 10:1615:21.]  Allusions to “Servant” theology, as well as its influence, are also frequently seen. [Mark 10:4514:24Luke 22:37John 12:38Acts 8:32Romans 4:255:198:332-341 Corinthians 15:32 Corinthians 5:21Hebrews 9:281 Peter 2:21-253:18.]

For the first Christians no Old Testament passage was more significant than Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (cf. Acts 8:32). In its words they saw not only the meaning of the Crucifixion as being within the plan of God, but also found there the foundation for a doctrine of Atonement through the death of Christ and a promise of Christ’s vindication beyond the Cross. [Neil, 85.]

They wanted Barabbas (3:13-14)

The Servant described by Isaiah had been handed over by the Jewish people to be killed by Pilate (Luke 23:1-25). Pilate, representing a pagan government, wanted to let Jesus go free. Luke set up Peter’s point by citing this fact in his Gospel. On three occasions, Luke mentioned Pilate wanting to release Jesus (Luke 23: 41622), all against the clamor of God’s own people.

The Jews demanded that another prisoner, a murderer, should be released to them (3:14). This man, Barabbas, was identified by Luke as a rebel who had been imprisoned for rioting and murder (Luke 23:18-1925). So there was a bitter irony in Jesus’ crucifixion. A criminal was given freedom, but the man who wanted to bring the nation spiritual freedom was executed. Jesus’ death became a supreme travesty of humanity’s injustice and spiritual blindness. In contrast to the murderer Barabbas, Jesus was “the Holy and Righteous One” (verse 14). Both titles are used of Jesus in the New Testament. [The “Holy One” is found in Mark 1:24Luke 4:34 John 6:691 John 2:20Revelation 3:7 and the “Righteous One” is in Acts 7:5222:141 John 2:1.]

God raised him up

Continuing with his sermon, Peter said his hearers had disowned Jesus and “killed the author of life.” But “God raised him from the dead” (3:15). The Greek word translated “author” has a range of meanings, including leader, founder, cause, originator, pioneer. Jesus is the founderof eternal life in the sense that he is its giver (John 10:281 John 1:4). He is also the leaderin that he has paved the way by being the first-born of many who will follow him in resurrection (Romans 8:29). Ultimately, Jesus is the source and perfecter of salvation, the pioneer who paved the way and accomplished the task (Hebrews 2:105:912:2).

By virtue of his resurrection, Jesus is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Thus, Jesus is representative of the total harvest. His resurrection was the beginning of the entire episode. Jesus’ rising to life is part of the same event as the general resurrection of believers, though the two are separated in time.

We are witnesses (3:15-16)

In his sermon, Peter proclaimed that he and John were witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Peter then pointed to an example of God’s power to “raise up.” It was the crippled beggar standing right beside them (3:16). The one who was raised to eternal life, Jesus, had “completely healed” the beggar (3:16). Peter insisted that the cripple had been cured on the grounds of “faith in the name of Jesus” (3:16).

There is a question regarding the nature of the faith Peter referred to. According to Luke’s account, the beggar did not show any particular “faith.” He had simply asked Peter and John for money. The possibility of his being healed apparently didn’t enter his mind. Seemingly, God bestowed a gracious gift on the man through the two apostles, apart from any work of faith on his part. Once the beggar saw what happened to him, he believed not only in his healing but understood the source of his healing. It was God whom the beggar praised for his good fortune (3:8).

However, the beggar’s faith was expressed only after the miracle occurred. His healing was by grace — a totally unmerited gift — given to the man apart from his expressing any faith beforehand. If anything, it was Peter’s faith that made the healing possible. He had walked up to the beggar and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (3:6). There is another dimension of faith that helps us understand what Peter meant when he said the beggar had been healed by faith. The believer’s faith does not originate from within the person but comes from the gift that God provides (Romans 4:1711:29Ephesians 1:18-202 Timothy 1:9).

Acted in ignorance (3:17)

As Peter continued speaking, he softened his earlier, more strident rhetoric. Before, he accused his listeners of being murderers. On this occasion, he had a more conciliatory tone. Peter said, “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders” (3:17). Peter had declared God’s judgment on his compatriots for crucifying the One who had been designated Savior. Here, he stressed God’s foreknowledge of what they would do to Jesus. The “killers” were merely God’s instruments. In the spirit of Jesus, Peter offered God’s mercy to them (Luke 23:34).

The mood has changed from devastating reproof to pleading conciliation. Peter was no longer interested in bringing an accusation against the Jews for their crime. Rather, he hoped his listeners would act on the hopeful message of salvation God was making available to his people Israel. Peter was being charitable to his listeners and their leaders. This is especially evident when we compare this with John’s matter-of-fact condemnation of the people who were responsible for having Jesus crucified (John 9:4115:22).

It may be thought that Peter’s words were surprisingly lenient to people like Caiaphas and the other chief priests, whose determination to have Jesus put to death is underscored in all the Gospels. Nevertheless, here is the proclamation of a divine amnesty, offering a free pardon to all who took part in Jesus’ death, if only they acknowledge their error, confess their sin, and turn to God in repentance. [Bruce, 83.]

Sufferings foretold (3:18, 21)

Continuing his sermon, Peter mentioned a second mitigating factor regarding his listeners’ guilt in the murder of Jesus. Not only did they act in ignorance (3:17), it had been foretold beforehand that Jesus had to suffer at their hands. God was guiding events so that the predictions about the Messiah suffering persecution and martyrdom would be carried out (3:18). God had willed the Servant’s shameful crucifixion (3:21). The Messiah was to suffer and die. This was precisely why the vast majority of Jews would not accept Jesus as Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth had been executed as a common criminal. In the eyes of the Jews, he was under the curse of the Law (Deuteronomy 21:33Galatians 3:13). Thus, they reasoned, he could not have been their Messiah.

Peter was claiming that the reverse was true. It was only because Jesus was crucified that he qualified to be the Savior. He was saying that the witness of the prophets, when properly understood, focused on the Messiah’s suffering. Of course, the Scriptures don’t specifically say that it was the Messiah who would suffer. (Messiah is actually a rare word in the Old Testament.) Isaiah spoke of the Servant (not the Messiah) as the one who would suffer and die for the sins of others. It is not clear that the Jews understood the Servant and the Messiah to be one and the same. This perhaps was where faith entered. One had to accept Jesus’ own claim that his messianic mission was fulfilled in terms of the Servant sufferer.

Nevertheless, Peter claimed that “all the prophets” contain promises of the Messiah’s suffering (3:24). Today, we are unable to find references, literally, in all the prophets to a suffering Messiah. On the other hand, there are passages in several prophets and Psalms that could be taken to refer to a suffering Messiah. [Psalm 22, 69; Jeremiah 11:19Zechariah 13:7Daniel 9:26.]  We can probably understand “all the prophets” in a collective sense. What is written down from one or a few prophets can be attributed to all of them as a class.

Repent and turn to God (3:19)

Throughout his sermon, Peter insisted that Jesus is Savior. He suffered according to God’s plan and the prophets had foretold his suffering. The apostles had seen Jesus’ death and resurrection. At least some of the audience would have heard Jesus teach and heal — and seen him die. Given these facts, Peter preached that only one reaction from the audience is appropriate. Luke summarized it in a sentence: “Repent…and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (3:19).

The meaning of “repent” here (as in Peter’s first sermon) must be seen in context. He was speaking to devout Jews who prayed at the temple and kept the Law. For them, repentance was not so much turning away from a sin-filled life. In general, these Jews would have already been following the principles of a good life, based on the Law. What “repent” almost certainly wouldn’t have meant to the Jews was their need to turn away from idols to serve God. Pagan Gentile converts would have to take this step, as they did in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:9) and Lystra (14:15). The Jews, however, abhorred idolatry, and they worshipped the one true God.

Nonetheless, Peter did speak here of repentance as a turning to God (1:19). The reason is because all have sinned and come short of the glory of God — Jew and Gentile alike (Romans 3:23). All people must turn to God, even those who have understood and tried to follow the Holy Scriptures (Acts 26:20). To experience reconciliation with God, everyone needs forgiveness, repentance, and the Holy Spirit.

For this audience, “repentance” would mean turning to God by accepting Jesus as Lord, and as the Messiah whom God had chosen (9:35; 11:27). When people acknowledge the Savior, they acknowledge the need for being saved from a condition of sinfulness. Jesus had already paid for their sins, but they would not experience his forgiveness unless they turned to God (3:19).

Times of refreshing

Peter associated the forgiveness of sins with the “times of refreshing” to come (3:19). This is a unique phrase in the New Testament. It has generally been thought to refer to Jesus’ return at a time of general salvation (1:7). Jesus must remain in heaven until that time, that is, “until the time comes for God to restore everything” (3:21). Luke here used his characteristic word dei to show the compelling need for different aspects of God’s plan. Dei means “it is necessary.” Jesus must remain in heaven simply because that is what God has decreed as part of his purpose for humanity.

Peter associated this time of restoration with the future rebirth of Israel, as described in the Old Testament. In many Old Testament prophecies, this rebirth was placed in the context of the Messiah’s coming. In terms of a New Testament understanding, the restoration would occur at the “second coming” of the Messiah in the last days — and then “everything” would be restored.

In one sense, however, the time of renewal began with Jesus’ earthly ministry, and with John the Baptist. [Malachi 4:5Mark 9:12-13Matthew 11:71417:11-13.]  The kingdom of God was with human beings in the presence of the incarnate Jesus. Something of a “restoration” or rebirth is occurring in the world right now. This is the spiritual rebirth or conversion of people through the Holy Spirit, as they are brought into his body, the church.

But the “restitution” or “refreshing” that Peter spoke about is something that occurs at Jesus’ return. This was announced by “his holy prophets.” Until this time, when all the enemies of God are overthrown, Jesus must remain in heaven — at God’s right hand, to use another metaphor (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

Peter seemed to connect Jesus’ return (the refreshing) to his listeners’ repentance, as though one depends on the other (3:19). But this is trying to force precision out of words that were not meant to provide a precise timetable or causal relationship. Some have suggested that if Christians fail to spread the message of salvation and people refuse to respond to the gospel, then God cannot send Jesus a second time. This would make humans, not God, sovereign. It presupposes that God cannot get his message to the world or accepted unless enough people are interesting in disseminating it — or responding to it.

The book of Revelation, written at the close of the apostolic era, takes a different viewpoint. It describes conditions of the end-time in apocalyptic format. This book insists that Jesus’ return will occur even though the entire world is hostile to God. Indeed, Jesus’ return will be necessary to eliminate this hostility, as well as the world’s rejection of the gospel message. There is no bold talk in Revelation about the church spreading the gospel. Humans will not necessarily even be required to spread the message, for a supernatural messenger of God (“an angel”) will preach the gospel to the world (Revelation 14:6-7). In short, God does not need humans; humans need God.

What Peter probably meant was that his listeners should repent so that the “times of refreshing” could come to them. They will experience this refreshing for themselves when they repent and sense the forgiveness and acceptance of God. When God will send Jesus a second time is a secret he alone holds. When he decrees it is time, Jesus will return and “restore everything” (3:21).