Jesus ascended into heaven and before he left he told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit. The disciples waited and then they were filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking in the languages of the visitors to Jerusalem who came from the known world around the Mediterranean Sea. Elliot preached about Peter’s sermon, the first sermon of the church and then Chris preached last Sunday about Luke’s summary of the life of the first church.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
As Chris pointed out last Sunday, verses 44-47 amplify these four qualities of the first church: teaching, fellowship, sharing meals together, and prayer. But there is an additional quality of the first church that is listed in verse 43. (Acts 2:43)
Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.
As we move through the book of Acts we will see, over and over again, the wonders and signs that were a critical part of the growth of the early church.
Acts chapters 1 and 2 serve as an introduction to the early church Luke writes about. Now, in Acts 3, we begin to see the church moving out into the world.
John Stott writes in his commentary that we should read the book of Acts and Revelation at the same time. The book of Acts tells what happened on earth; Revelation tells what happened in the supernatural world. Let me read from Stott’s commentary.
John in the Revelation enables us to see the hidden forces at work. In the Acts human beings oppose and undermine the church; in the Revelation the curtain is lifted and we see the hostility of the devil himself, depicted as an enormous red dragon, aided and abetted by two grotesque monsters and a lewd prostitute…It can hardly be a coincidence that the symbolism of the dragon’s three allies in Revelation corresponds to the devil’s three weapons wielded against the church in the early chapters of the Acts, that is, persecution, moral compromise, and the danger of exposure to false teaching when the apostles became distracted from their chief responsibility, namely ‘the ministry of the Word and prayer’.
As I mentioned in the introduction sermon to our series on the book of Acts, Luke is the telling of the ministry of Jesus and Acts is the telling of the continuing ministry of Jesus.
After his baptism and temptation in the wilderness, Jesus returned to Nazareth, his home town,
and spoke in the synagogue. He read from Isaiah 61 (Luke 4:18–21)
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus went out into the towns of Palestine teaching that the kingdom of God had come and demonstrating that as he healed the sick and delivered the possessed.
This was a heavenly assault on the kingdom of Satan and it seems the devil’s strategy was to have Jesus killed. When that proved to be a glorious failure and the disciples were energized by the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the heavenly assault on Satan’s kingdom rose to a new level with the twelve disciples, the seventy-two disciples, and the three thousand new followers of Jesus at Pentecost taking the good news of Jesus out into the wider world.
So when John and Peter went to the Temple to pray and healed a man who had been lame since birth, the devil used his weapons to weaken this assault.
As we move through the early chapters of Acts we will see how the disciples were persecuted. In the account of Ananias and Sapphira, we will see the effect of moral failure. And then we will see how the church had to deal with false teaching. I John was written to counter the false teaching that Jesus was not fully human; he was a ghost who appeared to be human.
Acts 3 is the beginning of the accounts of how the disciples moved out into the world. With the power of the Holy Spirit, the disciples stepped out into the world with the same charge Jesus gave to them when the twelve disciples made their first missionary journey. (Luke 9:1–2)
When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
In the summary of life in the first church Luke writes (Acts 2:43)
Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.
This account in Acts 3 is the first example of these wonders and signs. It is not necessarily the first wonder and sign of the first church, but in Luke’s telling the story of the early church, he has a particular focus. Luke’s primary focus is on Peter and we don’t know about the wonders and signs that were part of the ministry of John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. Nor do we know anything about the ministry of Matthias, the disciple selected to replace Judas. Nor do we know anything about the ministry of the other disciples of Jesus. Acts has a very select focus.
Luke tells the story of Peter and what is true for Peter was true for the other disciples of Jesus: he and they were able to do what Jesus had done. I love reading about the ministry of Peter and will have to wait for heaven to hear the incredible stories the other disciples have to share.
Jesus had told the disciples (John 14:12)
Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.
So now we begin to see Peter doing the things Jesus had done..
With this, let’s take a look at the account in Acts 3.
The text this morning tells a story that is quite dramatic and is one of the stories in the Bible that I understand better after having lived in Rabat these past twenty years. Beggars in Morocco have assigned places where they sit each day. I don’t know how it works, but I see the same beggars in the same places and have seen one beggar chase another away when she intruded into someone else’s spot.
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon.
The Jews observed three times of prayer: morning (9 AM), afternoon (3 PM) and sunset. This was the afternoon prayer time and since Peter and John still considered themselves to be Jews, they continued to be obedient Jews and prayed at the appointed times. As they walked to the Temple, they passed a gate called the Beautiful Gate.
This gate was most likely the Corinthian Gate through which most people coming to the Temple would pass. The Jewish historian, Josephus, described this gate in great detail. It was made of Corinthian bronze. The doors were 18 meters high and the gate itself, 23 meters high. On the bronze doors were thick plates of gold and silver. When the sun hit this door the brilliance was even more impressive. This was a prime location, a prized spot for begging, and it went to a man who was born lame at birth.
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.
Each day his friends carried him there and he would sit and beg. He could not work to make income for the family, but he could beg and bring money home to help with the expenses of the family.
When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money.
You know how this is because we walk past beggars all the time. As you pass, a beggar looks at you and asks for money. If you are the only person walking by, the beggar follows you with his or her eyes. If there are many people walking by, the beggar asks and quickly decides if you are worth asking again and if not, then his or her attention moves to someone else. If you beg for a living, you become expert at reading faces and body language and assessing who will help and who will not.
Peter and John were not alone on the street going into the Temple. Since it was the time for the sacrifice and prayers, many were passing by this gate to go to the Temple. So this man sat, asking for money, calling out over and over the words he used to get the attention of those who walked by. He asked Peter and John and then his eyes went to someone else walking by and asked someone else for help until he heard Peter speak. Look at us!
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.
This man who had casually looked at Peter and John as they passed by now gave them his full attention to see what they would give him. This was the first gift Peter and John gave to him.
In Luke 7 there is an account of Jesus with the crowd of disciples walking with him coming into contact with a funeral procession coming out of the town of Nain. When I am driving to church and see a long line of cars in a funeral procession heading to the cemetery, I think about how I can get around it to get where I am going. This is not what Jesus did. There was a dead body being carried and behind the body his mother was walking. (Luke 7:13)
When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”
Jesus was with a large crowd that was being blocked by another large crowd. But Jesus did not see the crowd, he saw the widow whose only son was dead. Jesus looked, he saw the widow’s circumstance, he had compassion for her, and then he acted.
He said, “Don’t cry,” and then raised her son back to life, returning her only son to her, giving her hope and a new life.
Looking at people is a gift. When we go to a store and pay for what we buy, looking the person who takes our money in the eye is a gift. We notice them. We tell them they exist and have worth beyond their function in the store. Looking at beggars in the street is a gift even if we do not give them any money. Looking at someone is a way of letting that person know he or she exists, has worth, is valued enough that you take time to look at them.
Peter said, “Look at us,” and the beggar turned his full attention to them.
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.”
Peter may have pointed to the gate called Beautiful with its bronze doors decorated with gold and silver. Silver and gold was what the beggar thought he would get but what he received was more than he expected. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.
Taking him by the right hand, [Peter] 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.
Peter reached out his right hand and grasped the right hand of the beggar. He touched him. This too is a gift. Beggars do not get touched. Prostitutes do not get touched except in unhealthy and unpleasant ways. Lepers do not get touched and yet Jesus was continually touching people the world considered unclean.
Peter reached out to grasp the beggar by his right hand and helped him up. This is something he had seen Jesus do. When Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead, (Mark 5:41–42)
He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). 42 Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished.
Peter took the man by the hand and pulled him up just as Jesus had done.
This was a dramatic healing. This man had never in his life walked, had been lame since birth. Luke was a physician and he used specific Greek words to indicate in what way this man was lame. He had paralysis in the heels of his feet. The bones in the socket of his ankle were not connected. This is why he could not walk. He had never walked. He had never supported the weight of his body with his legs. This means that not only were his feet deformed, his leg muscles had never really developed.
An operation today probably could have healed this man. The surgeons would have cut open his ankles, connected the bones in the socket of his ankle, perhaps they would have needed to construct bones for the socket and then he would have needed months of physical therapy to learn to walk, to slowly strengthen the muscles of his legs.
All this happened in an instant and he was walking and jumping in the courtyard of the Temple.
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.
Too many evangelism programs, at least in the United States, have people memorize answers to questions people are not asking. The best evangelism is living our lives in a way that raises questions. The reason wonders and signs are such a powerful influence on the growth of the church is that they raise questions in the minds of those who observe them.
How did you make this happen? Where did the power to do this come from?
We will look at Peter’s response to the questions that arose from this man’s healing next week. For this week let me say that the healing of this man was proof that Jesus had resurrected because only the Messiah could do a miracle like this.
For the rest of this sermon I want to continue with the theme of the kingdom of God moving out into the world. Peter and John brought the kingdom of God to the man born lame. I want to focus on how the kingdom of God is moving out into the world during this current pandemic and how we can be a part of that.
We have been locked down, unable to go to the Temple to pray. That lockdown has now been eased, but we are still not permitted to go to the church to pray. We will have to wait some time before that happens.
We have been, mostly, staying at home with lots of time to talk and think. We read the news, watch the news, and post on Facebook talks and articles that explore what this pandemic is, why it is, what will happen after it no longer is.
So let me share some insights from N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar from England. You may have read some of his books.
Back in March N.T. Wright wrote an article about the Covid-19 pandemic. This was expanded into a short book, God and the Pandemic. I read this book this past Monday. It is a short book, just a ninety-eight page paperback. The publisher’s promotion for the book asks the question, “What should you think about the Coronavirus?”
It’s China’s fault. It’s America’s fault. It’s a conspiracy. The World Health Organization is in on it. We are being punished for harming the environment. God is telling us to repent. God is angry. The end is near. Why is this happening? What can we do?
These have been common thoughts and questions during the Coronavirus pandemic, brought upon by fear, panic, and confusion. But what should we really be thinking?
That is a good question for us to be asking: What should we really be thinking?
One of the unfortunate responses to this pandemic, as is always the case with tragic evemts, is conspiracy theories. Some say that China created this to gain power over the US and Europe. Others say that the US created this as a way of exploiting people in Africa. Wright tells us to beware of conspiracies.
My own difficulty with conspiracies is that they only work in novels where the author can control the actions of all those involved. In real life, there is no human who can control the actions of all the players involved in a conspiracy theory. Someone, something always breaks down. Information gets released. Secrets are not kept. Conspiracies don’t work in real life.
Wright cautions us against wasting time asking why the pandemic is here. It is only one of a long list of pandemics in history. Pandemics are like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and typhoons, fires, and famines. Tectonic plates are constantly moving, the air and sea currents constantly move, creating storms, droughts, floods. These are constants in history. God uses these events to bring good. The devil uses these events to bring evil. But neither God nor the devil cause them. They are simply part of the world we live in.
Wright urges us not to theologize about the pandemic. Some Christians say that this pandemic is a sign of the End. Others say this is a moment of opportunity. Now that everybody is thinking about death rather than wondering what to buy, perhaps there will be a massive turning to God. This is a time to tell people about Jesus. Perhaps this time they will be listening.
Others quote Old Testament prophets to say that when bad things happen, it must be God who has done it because he is angry with us for some reason. Some blame people whose behavior they do not like and say it is because of them that this pandemic is happening.
Conspiracy theories, asking questions that do not help us, and finding someone to blame for what is happening wastes our time and distracts us from what we are called to do.
Instead of spinning around with conspiracy theories and fruitless theological considerations, Wright tells us that we are to lament the pandemic. We are to have a passionate expression of grief and sorrow for the suffering it is causing.
When Jesus came to the home of Martha and Mary and saw their grief because of the death of their brother Lazarus, (John 11:33) “he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” This word, translated “troubled” carries the sense of being angry.
Jesus was angry, not at Mary and Martha and their friends because they were grieving, but because death is wrong. Death is not how it is supposed to be.
Illness is not how it is supposed to be. Pandemics are not how it is supposed to be. Acts of violence and wars are not how it is supposed to be.
God has put heaven in our hearts and we know, deep down, that the way it is in heaven is the way it is supposed to be on earth. John writes in Revelation 21:4
‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
That is the world that is in our heart and when there is death and mourning, crying and pain, it hurts. We lament. We grieve, we are deeply troubled, we are angry that this world is not the way it is supposed to be.
Our response to the pandemic is to lament and it is to pray. Wright tells us we are called to be “people of prayer at the place where people are in need.”
Paul writes in Romans 8:22-27,
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved.
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
In these verses we see the groaning of the world, the groaning of the church, and the groaning of the Spirit. We may not know how to pray or what to say when we pray, but there is a wordless groaning in us, a longing in us to see this world transformed.
We see the suffering in this world and it is jarring. It upsets us. People are not supposed to get sick. People are not supposed to die. People are not supposed to fight with each other. People are not supposed to hurt others. God has put heaven in our hearts and we measure what happens on earth by what we know it will be like in heaven. So we groan with longing for the kingdom of God to come.
Act without fear
Our response to the pandemic is to lament, to pray, and to act without fear.
Wright takes us to Acts 11 when Agabus, a prophet in Antioch, said that the Spirit had revealed to him that there would be a great famine over the whole world. He points out that the Antioch followers of Jesus did not respond by saying, “This is a sign that the world is going to end.” They did not respond by saying, “This must mean we have sinned and need to repent,” or even, “This will give us a great opportunity to tell the wider world that everyone has sinned and needs to repent.” Neither did they speculate about who was to blame for this.
Wright says, “They ask three simple questions: Who is going to be at special risk when this happens? What can we do to help? And who shall we send?”
Wright says that when we read the book of Acts, we see how the kingdom of God advances. The kingdom of God advances when we live out the faith we have in Jesus.
He points out that God wants to rule his world through human beings. He wants his kingdom to advance through us. So when the church in Antioch decided to send money to the church in Jerusalem because they were their brothers and sisters in Christ, the kingdom of God advanced.
When people in Jerusalem asked the followers of Jesus where the money came from that was helping them in the famine and they said it was from Syrian Antioch, that raised questions that could be answered. Who had ever heard about the people of a foreign city sending aid to a city in Palestine? What caused them to send such a generous gift to the community in Jerusalem?
Our response to the pandemic is important because God has chosen to build his kingdom on earth through us. Jesus was made flesh, was born as a baby in Bethlehem. Jesus did not grow up and move through the towns of Palestine by himself. He did not come to announce that the kingdom of God had come by himself. He did not demonstrate that the kingdom of God had come with wonders and signs by himself.
Jesus invited people to follow him, to be his disciples. He taught them. He trained them. He encouraged them to go and do what they had seen him do. When he ascended into heaven, he sent the Spirit to empower his followers so they could continue to build the kingdom of God.
In reflecting on Romans 8:28 (“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”) Wright says:
Paul is … offering a Jesus-shaped picture of a suffering, redeeming providence, in which God’s people are themselves not simply spectators, not simply beneficiaries, but active participants. They are ‘called according to his purpose’, since God is even now using their groaning, at the heart of the world’s pain, as the vehicle for the Spirit’s own work, holding that sorrow before the Father, creating a context for the multiple works of healing and hope. Such God-lovers are therefore shaped according to the pattern of the Son: the cruciform pattern in which God’s justice and mercy, his faithfulness to the covenant and to creation, are displayed before the world in tears and toil, lament and labour. That is our vocation in the present time.
The Lord’s Prayer is our ‘norm’. Are we looking for sudden signs of the End? No: we pray every day, ‘Thy Kingdom Come on earth as in heaven’, and we know that prayer will be answered because of what we know about Jesus. Are we looking for fresh, sudden calls to repent? No: we pray every day, ‘Forgive us our Trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ We know that prayer will be answered, because of what we know about Jesus. Are we then looking for fresh reasons to leave our comfortable lifestyles and tell our neighbours the good news? Well, shame on us if it takes a pandemic to get us to that point.
What is our response to this pandemic? Paul wrote to the Galatians, (Galatians 6:10) “do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” The history of the church over the centuries has had good and bad, but the way the church responded to plagues in the early church was a powerful part of its witness.
The outside world couldn’t believe it. As we saw, when faced with a plague, the early Christians would pitch in and nurse people, sometimes saving lives, sometimes dying themselves. Their strong belief in God’s promises for life beyond the grave gave them a fearlessness which enabled them both to keep cheerful in the face of death and to go to the aid of sufferers whose own families and communities had abandoned them for fear of the disease.
Our response, as followers of Jesus through whom God wants to build his kingdom, is to step out into the world, caring for people in need, healing the sick, delivering people from demonic possession, comforting those who are mourning, looking people in the eye and letting them know the kingdom of God has come.
Martin Luther lived through several plagues and his insights are helpful to us as we move through this pandemic.
Wright tells us:
Luther faced several plagues in Wittenberg and elsewhere in the 1520s and 1530s, and in his letters to church and civic leaders he insisted that preachers and pastors should remain at their posts: as good shepherds, they should be prepared to lay down their lives for their sheep. Likewise civic and family leaders should only flee from a plague if they had made proper provision for the safety of those left behind. He offers advice which sounds as relevant today as it was five hundred years ago. Plagues, he says, may perhaps be messengers from God; but the right approach should be practical as well as faithful. This, he says, is how one should think to oneself:
“With God’s permission the enemy has sent poison and deadly dung among us, and so I will pray to God that he may be gracious and preserve us. Then I will fumigate to purify the air, give and take medicine, and avoid places and persons where I am not needed in order that I may not abuse myself and that through me others may not be infected and inflamed with the result that I become the cause of their death through my negligence. If God wishes to take me, he will be able to find me. At least I have done what he gave me to do and am responsible neither for my own death nor for the death of others. But if my neighbour needs me, I shall avoid neither person nor place but feel free to visit and help him.”
Peter and John stepped out into the world and on their way to pray, stopped to heal a man born lame. The kingdom of God came to that man. We too are supposed to step out into the world. This does not mean we are to be foolish, not taking necessary precautions, but it also means we step out into the world without fear because we know that death is no longer our enemy. Part of our stepping out into the world may be that we do not risk infecting others through our negligence. But when our neighbor needs us, we should not be afraid to help.
As we move through the book of Acts, we need to keep in mind that this is an account of how the kingdom of God moved out into the world. It is not always a pretty story. There is an advance of the kingdom of God against the kingdom of Satan and in that battle there are victories and defeats, but the overall view is of an advance in which the kingdom of God is constantly growing.
In Luke’s summary of the early church he writes: (Acts 2:42–43)
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.
When we meet for a Bible Study, listen to a sermon, read a book about some aspect of Christian theology or about our life in Christ, the kingdom of God advances.
When we meet together to worship, to pray, to learn together, to build unity, the kingdom of God advances.
When we share a meal together, enjoying being with each other, sharing our stories with each other, listening to each other, showing our concern for each other, the kingdom of God advances.
When we pray in the morning or night before we get out of bed or when we go to bed, when we pray with someone during the day, when we pray throughout the day, the kingdom of God advances.
When we use the gifts God has given us to bless the community of followers of Jesus, the kingdom of God advances. When we love people in the name of Jesus, the kingdom of God advances. When we work for justice, bringing the justice of heaven to earth, the kingdom of God advances. When we use the gifts God has given us to perform wonders and signs, the kingdom of God advances.
I am not very effective in praying for someone who is demon possessed, but I am glad that Elliot is effective in this and in the ministry of FCI people are being healed and delivered from demonic possession. I am glad that my friends in the Moroccan church are effective in this and people are being healed and delivered from demonic possession.
There are many ways to advance the kingdom of God. We do this with the gifts we have been given. How we do this does not all look the same, but when we step out into the world with eyes open to see how we can work with Jesus to build his kingdom – whether we are students, teachers, raising a family, helping with households, carpenters, plumbers, diplomats, or counselors – the kingdom of God advances.
God wants to build his kingdom through us. Step out into the world with faith and let his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.