If we want to understand how the early church conceived of “the Gospel”, we need to take a close look at the sermons found in the book of Acts. Today we are looking at Peter’s sermon in Acts 3:12-26 following the healing of a crippled man outside the temple.
Peter saw them all and began to speak. “Fellow Israelites,” he said, “why are you amazed at this? Why are you staring at us as though it was our own power or piety that has made this man walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob—the God of our ancestors’—He has glorified His child Jesus, the one you handed over and denied in the presence of Pilate, although he had decided to let Him go. But you denied the Holy One, the Just One, and requested instead to have a murderer given to you; and so you killed the Prince of Life. But God raised Him from the dead, and we are witnesses of the fact. And it is His name, working through faith in His name, that has given strength to this man, whom you see and know. It is faith which comes through Him that has given Him this new complete wholeness in front of all of you.
“Now, my dear family,” Peter continued, “I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did. But this is how God has fulfilled His promise through the mouth of all the prophets, that His Messiah would suffer. So now repent, and turn back, so that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshment may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that He will send you Jesus, the one he chose and appointed to be His Messiah. He must be received in heaven, you see, until the time which God spoke through the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient days, the time when God will restore all things. Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me, one from among your own brothers; whatever he says to you, you must pay attention to him. And everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be cut off from the people.’ All the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and his successors, spoke about these days too. You are children of the prophets, the children of the covenant which God established with your ancestors when he said to Abraham, ‘In your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ When God raised up His servant He sent Him to your first, to bless each of you by turning you away from your wicked deeds.”
In this early sermon, Peter wanted to insist that Jesus is the Messiah, not a heavenly being sent to take us to heaven, but an anointed King appointed by God to bring deliverance and freedom to His people. For most Westerners, “the Messiah” is merely a fancy, honorific title for the second person of the Trinity. But “Messiah” means “anointed” as in God’s anointed in Psalm 2, the man appointed by God to rule the world and whom the nations band together to oppose. Throughout the history of Israel, the anointing of oil was the way of identifying the one person God had chosen to bring His rule and reign through. The Messiah was bound to protect and deliver God’s people from pagan nations and powers. All the pagan nation’s gods were usurpers of God’s good creation. The Messiah was the one anointed and appointed to set the creation right again. And Peter declares that Jesus is this King and that this is evidenced by the powerful healing that has taken place in His name. Peter appeals to his fellow Jews on the basis of results that were anticipated by the Psalms and prophets: healing and resurrection (Psalm 72, Isaiah 9:1-7, Isaiah 11:1-9, Ezekiel 37:1-14, Daniel 12:13, Habakkuk 2:14).
When Stephen gives his defense in Acts chapter 7, he retells the story of Israel, as was a regular practice of Jews at that time, because it was a story in search of an ending or a goal; an ending and a goal that is now provided through the Messiah’s resurrection and enthronement. Peter is pointing out the rather corrupt choices Israel has made as a result of misreading Israel’s story up to this point:
“Fellow Israelites”, says Peter, “...The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob—the God of our ancestors’—He has glorified His child Jesus, the one you handed over and denied in the presence of Pilate, although he had decided to let Him go. But you denied the Holy One, the Just One, and requested instead to have a murderer given to you; and so you killed the Prince of Life.” Acts 3:12,13-14
Peter is pointing out that the current fashions of scriptural interpretation which fanned the flames of violent revolution against Rome and guarded heavily against national disloyalty (the Pharisees) or which promoted a soggy compromise with Roman authority (the Sadducees and Priests) had led to an unholy decision to murder an innocent man. But Peter also insisted that even this bad decision of Israel as a whole was not outside of the purposes of God. The way was still open for Israel to repent and come walk in the self-giving, God-trusting, all-forgiving, inviting all insundry, way of the Messiah whose vindication and exaltation is now clearly being demonstrated through the healing of this crippled man. Israel was waiting for God Himself to take up His rule and reign through His Messiah and they needed to accept that when God did this, it looked exactly like Jesus. That is who Jesus is: God returning to His people to rule and reign and deliver. To pick Israel up and carry her where she was not able to take herself, directly into the new creation.
The bottom line is that results matter. If you are looking for God’s long awaited redemptive work, don’t take the path that led to the murder of the innocent. Take the path that has led to vindication even after death, and healing where no healing had been. The healing is what Israel wanted and Jesus is the path that they needed to get there.
“So now repent, and turn back, so that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”