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As Bad as the Bad News Is, the Good News Is So Much Better -- Peter's sermon in Acts 3

The good news about Jesus is absurdly good.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 3:12-26

In this passage, Luke recounts Peter's second major sermon (and gospel presentation) which results in the salvation of thousands more. He doesn't sugarcoat the bad news -- the people are responsible for the death of the Son of God. But he leads directly to the good news, that Jesus will forgive all who repent of their sin. (A healing is the tangible evidence given.)

Therefore repent and turn back, so that your sins may be wiped out, (3:19)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Gift You Didn't Know You Wanted

The context for this week's passage is an exchange in which a man asked Peter for money, and Peter instead gave him the ability to walk (well, Jesus gave it to him, but more about that below). And that got me thinking: have you ever received a gift that wasn't what you asked for but turned out to be much better?

I know I've mentioned this before, but it might have been many years ago by now. I collect Peanuts stuff and have for years. When we had been married for 3 or 4 years, I asked for something for my birthday, and instead Shelly got me a set of Peanuts collectibles. And I was actually upset at first, thinking "that wasn't what I asked for". Really! Now, of course, it's the centerpiece of the collection in my office and one of my favorite belongings.

I'm sure you have a similar story, maybe from when you were a kid. Or maybe you have a story of something you gave your own kids that they weren't expecting and loved.

Let me be clear -- the man in our passage this week was not ungrateful for what Peter gave him (like I was)! He immediately began jumping around and praising God. Maybe a parallel would be something like unexpectedly getting a car for a birthday, or opening a card and getting $1k. Something really unexpectedly awesome. That's the setup for this week's passage.

Trying to Explain Something That's Really Complicated

You could use this topic with almost any of these passages, but I'll offer it here. This works best if you have somebody in your group who works in a very specialized field (that they're allowed to talk about). How would you explain something that's really complex to somebody who doesn't really know anything about it? And challenge your group member actually to try that!

Wired has a series of videos based on this challenge; here's the shortest video of the bunch.

In my experience, the best thing you can do is identify the main concepts that your audience would have some kind of awareness of, and then use those familiar concepts to make one or two key points that would be easy to understand and hard to argue.

That's what Peter is doing in this week's passage. He's bringing together multiple extremely complex doctrines -- salvation, divine power, human agency, sin, prophecy, and the intended meaning of the Old Testament -- for a crowd that's frankly not ready for that discussion. So he keeps bringing it back to a central point, that Jesus is the promised Messiah from God. Focusing on the basics, so to speak.

I'm going to try to make this point as we go through this week's passage, that churches should follow Peter's example of consistently pointing the crowds back to Jesus and the salvation He provides. We live in a culture that asks a lot of questions (A LOT of questions), and those questions should be answered -- but never without connecting all of it back to the "main thing", that Jesus Christ is the only Savior of the world.

Acting in Ignorance

This topic tends to get more serious than humorous, so you may hang on to it until later in your group time. Have you ever acted in ignorance? (Yes, we all have.) What were the circumstances, and what was the outcome?

When adults act in ignorance (meaning we have faulty or incomplete information), the results are usually pretty rough. Sometimes it can be mostly harmless (like talking UGA football with a GA Tech fan, going to the wrong restaurant). But sometimes it results in the wrong person getting in trouble, the wrong business decision being made, or the wrong thing being said.

That's the background of this week's crowd. Some of them had been the ones to tell Pilate to crucify Jesus and release Barabbas. As they came to realize their great error, I'm sure it was accompanied by great guilt.

Peter's advice: you can't change the past. All you can do is repent and get your next decision correct. For them, that meant trusting in Jesus for salvation.


This Week's Big Idea: An Outline of Peter's Sermon

You know that I'm a big fan of outlines of the Bible. In my opinion, if you can create an effective outline of a book of the Bible, you are well on your way to understanding that book. This week, I propose focusing just on Peter's sermon (Acts 3:12-26).

But I'm not going to give the answers to you; I'm just going to give you some prompts to help you do the work.

In outlining, you look for clues to help you where the author/speaker intended major breaks to be made (like "in this first part of my speech..."). In the Bible, those usually come from key phrases or ideas. For example, in verse 16, Peter answers the question he asked in verse 12. Plus, he starts verse 17 with a conjunction (translated "now"), which suggests that he has moved on to a new point. (This is one of those times when the Bible translators can be helpful -- my translation has verse 17 starting a new paragraph.)

So, that would suggest that verses 12-16 are one section of Peter's sermon. What is his main point? What are his supporting points?

Then, we look at the rest of the sermon (17-26). My translation has a paragraph break at verse 24 (which starts with "indeed" being used as an interjection). However, the word "indeed" doesn't have to start a new section -- it can be used to indicate an explanation for a previous point (indeed, that's how I often use the word). So, which do you think it is?

What's the main point of 17-23? What are the supporting points? Do the same thing with verses 24-26.

And then once you've done that, you put it all together. What's the main point of the sermon? The supporting points?

Your outline will end up following a structure like this:

Primary Thesis

  1. Main Point 1

    1. Supporting Point 1

      1. Supporting data

      2. Supporting illustration

    2. Supporting Point 2

  2. Main Point 2

  3. Main Point 3, etc.

Primary Conclusion

And so on. (And in outlines, every "1" must have a "2".)

When you're done outlining Peter's sermon, you should be able to say

  1. His purpose

  2. His argument

  3. His conclusion

  4. His supports and his applications

And boom, that's really all you need to know.

(Note: if you're the group leader, you make sure your teaching outline follows the outline you developed from the Bible.)

(Bonus note: one of my commentaries emphasizes that Peter introduces several new titles for Jesus: Righteous One, Holy One, author of life, and prophet like Moses. Perhaps those things might also help you create your outline?)

This Week's Bonus Big Idea: The Temple Complex

The event that triggers this week's passage takes place at the "Beautiful Gate" (3:2)

This graphic is a pretty standard depiction of the Temple Complex, and it puts the "Beautiful Gate" as the entrance from the Court of the Gentiles to the interior court where only Jews could go. Scholars aren't entirely in agreement about that. The two other proposals are (1) the exterior gate to the entire complex (on this graphic called the "Shushan Gate") or (2) the interior gate separating the priest's courtyard (on this graphic called the "Gate of Nicanor"). They're not too far apart from one another, so I'm not too worried about it. However, I think the graphic above is correct; it puts the action right next to Solomon's Colonnade, which is where the action turns next.

Solomon's Colonnade is the giant porch that warps around the outer courtyard in front of and behind the temple itself. (Note: there's argument about this, too, but a Hebrew instructor once told me that the term was used of both sides. On the photo above, the super-tall column area on the left is called the Royal Colonnade (or Portico).)

(Reminder: this photo is of a recreation of ancient Jerusalem that is found in Jerusalem. It's a miniature (bigature?), and it's the artists' best guess at what ancient Jerusalem looked like.)

My point with this picture is to make it clear that there's a lot of space there. The apostles could have attracted a crowd of thousands without a problem.


Part 1: The Name to Know Is Jesus (Acts 3:12-16)

12 When Peter saw this, he addressed the people: “Fellow Israelites, why are you amazed at this? Why do you stare at us, as though we had made him walk by our own power or godliness? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our ancestors, has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and denied before Pilate, though he had decided to release him. 14 You denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer released to you. 15 You killed the source of life, whom God raised from the dead; we are witnesses of this. 16 By faith in his name, his name has made this man strong, whom you see and know. So the faith that comes through Jesus has given him this perfect health in front of all of you.

If you did my outlining exercise above, you already know what Peter's sermon is about. Did you do that?

The first thing I see is that Peter IMMEDIATELY deflects the attention from himself and points the people to Jesus. (Note: that's a pretty good clue about a person's heart -- are they letting attention come to themself, or turning it all to Jesus?)

Think back to Peter's first sermon recorded in Acts 2. Another miracle of the Spirit had attracted a lot of attention, and Peter immediately told them that the miracle pointed to Jesus. It's the same thing he does here. Peter grabs the people by the shoulders and turns them around and points away from himself.

In the first sermon, Peter used the prophet Joel to ground his words in the Old Testament. In this sermon, he just goes straight for "The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob". We just spent 6 months in the book of Genesis -- how was that name of God used in that book?

And Peter then goes straight for the jugular, so to speak, on the people's role in the death of Jesus. He did it in his first sermon, but it seems more pointed here. Peter's audience, here inside the temple courts, is a little different than his first audience; do you think that might have something to do with his change in tone?

And Peter lays it on thick -- in all the ways we do during Passion Week. With the benefit of hindsight, we realize just how inexplicable the Jewish behavior was. "A man who has healed countless people and even raised the dead, who teaches about love and righteousness, let's have him put to death and instead have released a known murderer and insurrectionist." Maddeningly ridiculous, and there's no way to sugarcoat it.

But Peter doesn't dwell on the past -- he instead turns to the immediate future, namely what his audience needs to do about this.

I propose that Peter (prompted by the Holy Spirit) used the healed man as an illustration of what God wanted to do for the crowd, but as spiritual healing. Later, we learn that the man had been crippled for more than 40 years. If God can do that, imagine what God can do for your soul.

This is very much in line with what Luke reported Jesus as saying in his Gospel. Consider these excerpts:

  • 11:19 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons drive them out? For this reason they will be your judges. 20 If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

  • 13:14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded by telling the crowd, “There are six days when work should be done; therefore come on those days and be healed and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “Hypocrites! Doesn’t each one of you untie his ox or donkey from the feeding trough on the Sabbath and lead it to water? 16 Satan has bound this woman, a daughter of Abraham, for eighteen years—shouldn’t she be untied from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”

  • 17:17 Then Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Didn’t any return to give glory to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he told him, “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you.”

You can go through all of the Gospels and find many more examples of this. The point that is made over and over again in the Gospels:

  1. Miraculous physical healings are evidence of the Spirit of God.

  2. Miraculous physical healings point to the greater spiritual healing.

  3. Miraculous physical healings are evidence of the faith of the person in Jesus.

In other words, in the Gospels, it's never entirely about the miraculous physical healing -- it's what the healing suggests is possible.

Verse 16 is difficult to translate into English. But the gist of it is that "This man's faith in the name of Jesus is the basis of his healing." And further (and even more importantly), "This faith is not only in Jesus, it is through Jesus."

To us today, that is important for helping us realize that saving faith has both a God component and an us component -- divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But to Peter's audience, it would have been a big "UH OH". The Person they killed is the very person who makes faith available and possible. This is bad, right? But Jesus came to bring good news, though.

And that's what Peter is driving towards next.

Important Aside on "Faith Healing"

This is one of the verses that gets brought up when people try to defend the belief in "faith healing" -- if you believe hard enough, God will heal whatever ailment. And if you are not healed, it's because you didn't have enough faith.

Peter lets me off the hook for my explanation by saying "through Jesus" in verse 16b. In other words, this man is healed because Jesus wanted him healed, not because he had x-amount of faith.

That inevitably leads to a very uncomfortable question -- "Wait, does that mean my so-and-so loved one wasn't healed because Jesus didn't want them healed?" With apologies, that's asking the wrong question. What was the result of this man's healing? Many people came to faith in Jesus. Indeed, read the stories of the healings in the Bible; with a few notable exceptions, they all result in people having faith in God. In other words, miraculous healings are not primarily about the physical healing but the opportunity for people to be saved because of the testimony. And most Christians I know are aware of and comfortable with that.

So with that in mind, the question we're really asking is "Why doesn't God heal everybody of every illness?" And I think we know the answer to that. Sin has corrupted the world, and sin's corruption always results in physical death. Not healing somebody does not mean that God does not love that person. Even Lazarus eventually died again! It means that we live in a world where there is sickness and death, and one day God will send Jesus to inaugurate a world where that is no longer the case.

True love is that God walks with that person through the moment of death and welcomes them into the arms of Jesus on the other side. Well, everybody who has repented -- see the next section.


Part 2: Repent and Turn to Jesus (Acts 3:17-21)

17 “And now, brothers and sisters, I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your leaders also did. 18 In this way God fulfilled what he had predicted through all the prophets—that his Messiah would suffer. 19 Therefore repent and turn back, so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send Jesus, who has been appointed for you as the Messiah. 21 Heaven must receive him until the time of the restoration of all things, which God spoke about through his holy prophets from the beginning.

Peter transitions immediately into the Good News.

"The Bad News is that you killed the Son of the Almighty God, the very Source of life. The Worse News is that you could have stopped it, but you chose to let a murderer go instead. Oh, and the Worst News is that God is going to take vengeance on your souls for eternity."

"But the Good News is that God is willing to forgive you of that and wipe the slate clean."

Wait. What?

If anybody was going to understand just how absurdly good this Good News is, it's the group of people Peter was talking to.

"Acting in ignorance" is the key phrase here, and hopefully you've used the related discussion question. Remember when we talked about the "unforgivable sin"? We most recently studied it in the Gospel of Mark less than a year ago --

and Luke the author also put that exchange in his Gospel:

12:10 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

What we concluded was that if someone understood that the miracles Jesus performed were by the power of the Spirit, but they attributed it to Satan, there was no forgiveness available to that person. In other words, they refused to come to Jesus for salvation.

That's more or less what Peter is saying here. The corollary would be: "If you believed that Jesus was the Son of God, and you said to put Him to death anyway, there is no forgiveness available for you." In other words, the blasphemy against the Spirit.

Peter then presents a beautifully simple gospel: you have sinned against God; repent of that sin and turn back to God; acknowledge that Jesus is the Messiah of God.

[Remember -- Peter's audience knew exactly what he meant by that. Today, we probably have to use different words and concepts to explain the gospel.]

[Aside: note that Peter doesn't say anything about baptism here in conjunction with forgiveness of sins.]

What did the Old Testament say about the Messiah suffering, and why is that important?

Everybody in Peter's audience knew what had happened to Jesus (just as they knew the rumors of His resurrection). Likewise, everybody in Peter's audience knew what had happened to the crippled man (just as some knew how long he had been crippled). So they would have been able to put together the two disparate images -- the executed Jesus and the healed man -- in the way that Peter wanted them to. "The Bad News can turn into Good News if you have faith in Jesus."

Just as we focused on how bad the Bad News was, look at how good the Good News is --

  • sins wiped out;

  • seasons of refreshing;

  • restoration of all things.

It's very much a "breath of fresh air" in the midst of the death and ignorance.

Today, you probably have no trouble seeing the blessing of having your "sins wiped out", and you can also connect "restoration of all things" with the end of history when Jesus returns and conquers His enemies and establishes His eternal kingdom on earth. Both of those are great, right?

Well, Peter's audience would have connected "season of refreshing" with the Messianic Age. Here, it's worth digging into the meaning of "Messiah" in Jesus' day.

Aside on "Messiah"

The concept of "The Messiah" is very important in all four Gospels. And in all four Gospels, a primary emphasis of the author is correcting the faulty understandings of the term.

And I think most relevant to our passage is what Luke included at the end of his Gospel:

But I think the most helpful thing I can do for you is post this video:

The true "Messiah" "Anointed One" of God is the One who will destroy God's enemy -- death -- and bring God's people safely into salvation. Not a political figure or a military figure, but God Incarnate.

Jesus -- the man, the teacher, the healer -- is actually the Messiah sent from God, and salvation is found only in Him (more on this in the next section). Peter then makes a subtle reference to the "Day of the Lord" he brought up in his earlier section to both get in front of the questions some of the people would have and also give the people hope.

If you had just heard that you had killed the Son of the Living God, wouldn't you think that God's destruction was about to be rained down upon the entire world, and that would be the end of humanity? Wouldn't that be the logical catalyst for the "Day of the Lord" the latter prophets warned about? Well, that day is still coming, but it is not yet. Jesus is going to remain in heaven for a time until God sends Him back. And that "time in between" is to be a time of sowing and harvesting.

Remember that Luke has already prepped his readers for this:

1:6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Until Jesus comes back, the apostles have work to do. And every day that Jesus doesn't return is another day that people can hear and respond to the good news of salvation.

But Peter is going to explain this in more detail in the next section...


Part 3: And Only to Jesus (Acts 3:22-26)

22 Moses said: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to everything he tells you. 23 And everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be completely cut off from the people. 24 “In addition, all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those after him, have also foretold these days. 25 You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your ancestors, saying to Abraham, And all the families of the earth will be blessed through your offspring. 26 God raised up his servant and sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your evil ways.”

You might have figured out that I believe this paragraph is not a new point but an explanation of Peter's previous point. What exactly is Peter talking about?

Well, first, Peter points the people to Moses, and he quotes Deut 18:15-19. Note that he skips verse 16, which is the explanation for why the people asked what they asked:

18:16 This is what you requested from the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, ‘Let us not continue to hear the voice of the Lord our God or see this great fire any longer, so that we will not die!’

The people asked for God to send prophets because they were too afraid to hear from God directly. And well they should have been! "Our God is a consuming fire", and no one who is not right with God can stand in God's presence and live.

In particular, Moses was talking about the prophets of the Old Testament, men such as Samuel (and Isaiah and Joel, etc.). God would send prophets to the people to help them know His will and to confront their sin. It's what they asked for.

But it was very clearly a double-edged sword -- "And anyone who doesn't listen to My prophets must be cut off." That should only make sense.

And Luke has already reported the great big problem with this request:

Luke 11:47 “Woe to you! You build tombs for the prophets, and your fathers killed them. 48 Therefore, you are witnesses that you approve the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their monuments. 49 Because of this, the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and persecute,’ 50 so that this generation may be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world — 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible.

Over and over, God sent prophets to the people to warn them of coming judgment and to prod them into repenting and returning. But God's people rejected every prophet God ever sent. Hm, it seems that the Bad News has gotten even worse.

But this final Prophet -- Jesus -- has come with a solution the people did not previously know about; He came to fulfill the Old Covenant and install a New Covenant. We talked at great length about the covenants when we recently studied Genesis.

God always fulfills His part of a covenant. He promised that the earth would be blessed through Abraham's offspring, and in Jesus that would literally come true.

Again, Luke has already prepared his readers for this announcement:

Peter's audience would have to learn more. But we understand that Jesus fulfilled in Himself God's covenant with Abraham (and all the rest) and that He offers a new covenant to us in which He has fulfilled the greatest part -- all that is left for us is to repent and believe.

Previously, that was impossible. People cannot in our own power "act good enough" or "keep all the laws". Jesus explained that by saying that "don't murder" also means "don't be angry with". We can't not sin. But in Jesus, we can turn from our sin. And we can keep turning from it.

Is it becoming obvious how important it was for Luke that his readers understood the gospel?

Closing Activity: I've said a few times that Peter's audience would have understood all of the references Peter made. I've also said that people today probably wouldn't have that same awareness. How would you share this same message today with someone who didn't know anything about the Old Testament?

Remember my setup -- we live in a culture that asks a lot of questions, and it can be hard to keep pointing things back to Jesus. But that's what we need to be in the practice of doing. Answering the hard questions while (by?) pointing back to Jesus.


Closing Thoughts: 5,000 Men

The Lifeway notes mention that the result of this event and this message is that 5,000 more people were added to the church. I'm going to nitpick and say that's not the right translation of the passage. They're referring to

4:4 But many of those who heard the message believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.

That might sound weird, but it's standard for the day (remember the "feeding of the 5,000 men"?). The term used is a term almost always applied specifically to "adult males". This either means that the total number of men in the church grew to 5,000, or the number of men who believed on that day ultimately turned out to be 5,000. EITHER WAY, we're talking about family units, not just men. My guess is that Luke focuses on the number of men because some of the children represented were too young to understand (and maybe some of the wives as well), but I have to assume that at least some of the men had children who chose to believe. In other words, well more than 5,000 people were added to the church on this day.

With two significant miracles and gospel presentations, the church went from 120 to likely more than 10,000. That's something to celebrate.


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