An Opportune Moment
"And when Peter saw it he addressed the people: 'Men of Israel, 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? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all. And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out . . . '"
A lot of ground is covered in this passage, and you can listen to a deeper dive into it on this week's episode of Southern Reverend. But for the purposes of this reflection guide, I want to draw attention to three main points.
The first is the way that Peter draws in his audience. He and John have just healed a lame beggar, who then begins singing praises to them for the miracle they just performed. Seizing on the moment, when Peter could have used this attention to make a grab for power for himself, he instead points the attention to Christ and the power that comes from faith in Jesus' name. That in itself is an interesting commentary for out world of celebrity pastors, but that's a conversation for another day.
To grab their attention, Peter uses several phrases that would have brought to everyone's mind their own history and heritage as people of Israel. "Men of Israel," "The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," "his servant Jesus," all were little shorthand phrases that would have reminded anyone listening of their identity as part of God's chosen people. And then he places Jesus right there in line with the others.
What this tells Peter's audience is that Jesus is in the same historical company of men like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--and that Jesus is indeed the Messiah whose death and resurrection are part of God's redemptive plan for humanity.
What it tells us is the importance of remembering our own histories, our own stories, how we have seen God at work in our lives through our faith in Christ. It helps us see that everything we believe is part of a grand and sweeping narrative, and everything we experience has value to bring the good news to others.
The next thing we need to consider is Peter himself. Here is a man who, in the gospels, was constantly saying or doing the wrong thing because he is ignorant of Christ's purpose on earth. In this ignorance, he argues with Jesus from time to time, he takes up arms against Jesus' enemies, and he even denies knowing Jesus three times in one night. And yet, Christ did not abandon Peter to his ignorance. Instead, he guided him through it.
It may very well be that only Peter could have delivered the message we read from this passage in Acts. Because Peter knows what it means to have walked in ignorance, and he knows his own story and the Scriptures themselves well enough to see that ignorance in others. What at first glance seems like a message of condemnation is actually a message of empathy, compassion, and grace. It's as if Peter is saying, "Hey, I know you missed it. I did, too. But it isn't too late to join the party."
And finally, Peter's invitation to "Repent, therefore, and turn back, so that your sins may be blotted out."
Peter could have easily used this moment to hurl condemnation and retribution a these people, but he doesn't. Instead, he focuses their attention on the name and power of Christ, inviting them to turn to Christ so that Christ can forgive them. To put it another way, he doesn't start with their need to be forgiven. He starts with helping them understand Jesus.
Too often, I have seen people in the faith and in ministry preach to people about their sinfulness, their wickedness, their wretchedness, and their subsequent need for Jesus. Rarely does this message do more than to scare or guilt people into belief in some phony idea of God who is a bully and a monster. And often, this message is directed at people who don't even have a frame of reference for that belief anyway. It's a shame.
But what if instead, our messages and witness were centered around who we know Christ to be, our history with Christ and the way he has shaped our lives, and the hope that Christ gives us? Try as you might, you'll never get someone to see who Jesus really is by reminding them of their sin. On the other hand, people may very well become aware of their need for forgiveness if they are introduced to the love and mercy and grace of Christ.
Sure, we're all sinful, but sin is only Christ's to forgive anyway. It's better that we simply make the introduction and leave the rest to Jesus.
(This is the third part in an 8-week series called Can I Get A Witness? Come back each week as we walk through texts from the Book of Acts and listen online to the accompanying podcast, found here or on Spotify, iTunes, and SoundCloud.)