There are very few days when I come home and tell Carol that the whole world changed for me. However, there are some when you realize how routine and normal the day began and how a report from a doctor, a decision at work, an accident, news from a child, or any number of things has made this day forever different. That is how I imagine Peter and John sitting in prison and reflecting on the evening of the end of this day in Acts 4:3.
Twenty-four hours earlier their day ended with Acts 2:46: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
What a difference a day makes.
1. The day began normally for everyone – Peter, John and the crippled beggar. All three began in the same way. Peter and John were on their way to prayer – and the word for prayer here is literally begging. It’s “proseuche” and that is not meditation or reflection or thinking. It is supplication or pleading. Everyone preparing to beg. Two of them are coming together and one of them is being carried their by friends. And they converge as they are on their way.
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. Now a man who was lame 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. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. When all the people saw him walking and praising God, 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.
Peter Speaks to the Onlookers:
While the man held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade. When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.
2. What was it like at the gate? It was not just the single beggar. It was probably more like the scene when we stepped from the train at the city of Agra in India to visit the Taj Mahal. The whole platform was covered with the most hideous collection of crippled beggars I have ever seen. It took our breath away. It was like a scene from a book on Africa titled, “The Shadow of the Sun” by Ryszard Kapuscinski;
He is visiting Lalibela, the site of eleven sacred churches in Ethiopia carved out of a mountain in the twelfth century so that invading Muslims could not spot them. He has picked up a guide, Tadesse, who is a boy with only one eye.
“Look, sir!” said Tadesse, pointing down to the courtyard in front of the Church of the Savior of the World. But I had already noticed the sight myself. A dozen or so meters below where we stood, in the yard and on the steps of the church, surged a crowd of lame beggars. It is odd to say “surged” when speaking of discrete human beings, but that word best describes the scene. The people below were so tightly squeezed together, their crippled limbs, stumps, and crutches so tightly intertwined, that they formed a single crawling mass, out of which dozens of arms stretched upward like tentacles, and, where there were no limbs, innumerable gaping mouths extended upward, waiting for something to be thrown into them. As we walked from one church to another, this gnarled, moaning, expiring creature below crept after us, and from it dropped every now and then an inert, already lifeless member, abandoned by the rest.”
The beggar was not even looking at Peter and John in particular. He was looking down or away – not really expecting anything. Why would he? He was over 40 years old, crippled since birth, and had been there every day for years.
He had stopped looking for healing a long time ago. He was there asking for alms. Nothing more.
3. Did you notice the strategy of the early church? It was not so much a strategy as a way of life. They came together to eat and praise God. They went to the Temple to pray and Peter preached. It was simple. They did not have a strategic plan for growth.
They had a routine practice that was interrupted by a single encounter. The same was true for the beggar.
Peter and John were not looking for an opportunity to do something spectacular. They were not on a mission of healing. They were not out to eliminate poverty. In “Finding Calcutta” by Mary Poplin, she writes of her time with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Mercy in India:
“I never heard a Missionary of Charity discussing how to rid the world of poverty. No one wrung their hands over that fact that many needy people on the streets of Calcutta went untouched by the work of these few hundred women. The sisters simp[ly took in the poorest of the poor, those least likely to get other help.” Mary goes on to tell the story of Theophan the Recluse, a nineteenth-century Orthodox saint writing to a young woman desiring to cure the ills of the world. “The progressives have in mind all mankind or at least all of its people lumped together. The fact is, however, that “mankind” or “the people” does not exist as a person for whom you could do something right now. It consists of individual persons. By doing something for one person, we are doing it within the general mass of humanity. If each one of us did what was possible to do for whoever was standing right in front of our eyes, instead of goggling at the community of mankind, then all people, in aggregate, would at each moment be doing that which is needed by those in need, and, by satisfying their needs, would establish the welfare of all mankind, which is made up of haves and have-nots, the weak and the strong. But those who keep thoughts of the welfare of all mankind inattentively let slip by that which is in front of their eyes. Because they do not have the opportunity to perform a particular work, they accomplish nothing towards the main purpose of life.”
I am sure they had passed by many, many beggars while they had been in Jerusalem. There is little record of Peter and John doing anything like this before. In fact, in some ways they had spent more time arguing about who would be the greatest in the kingdom. This day, they simply encountered a single beggar that prompted them to respond. We don’t know why but as we’ll see this one chance encounter changed the history of the church.
4. “Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.”
We’ve all had the experience of looking away. The beggar was looking down and was accustomed to people looking away. There was no eye contact at all. I once asked a former panhandler what the secret to begging was and he said, “If you can make eye contact your chances are 100% better for getting something.” But, this time it was those being asked who wanted eye contact.
“Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong.”
The disciples had nothing with them not because they were poor but because they had all they needed. Everyone shared so they could leave their money at home. In fact, what if they had brought money or if they had been one of those inside the Temple who were trying to attract attention with their giving? There was no temptation to substitute a donation for their full attention.
5. Later, Peter does not describe this as a miracle. Only the Sadducees see it as a miracle. He simply calls it an act of kindness. You could say that simple kindness then – and now – is almost a miracle in itself. It still confuses, amazes and creates criticism. We are not expected to do miracles or even great deeds but only acts of kindness in the name of Jesus. But even that simple act lands them in jail for the night. Kindness disrupts things. It unsettles the way things are and threatens people with vested interests.
Who does it threaten the most? The most unkind, in fact.
During the ministry of Jesus his most outspoken opponents were the Pharisees – not the Sadducees. The Pharisees were upset by his tolerance for sinners and his disregard for the respectability of religion. The Pharisees, far more than the Sadducees, saw their role as teaching the people how to live inside the rules and Jesus made that more difficult. The Pharisees wanted religious people. The Sadducees wanted refined and rational people.
However, after the resurrection it was the Sadducees who were the chief enemies of the church because the disciples’ preaching about the resurrection of Jesus and accounts of angels was not only uncomfortable to them but it went counter to everything they believed. The Sadducees were the wealthy and conservative elite having the most to lose by any kind of disturbance. They despised common people and tolerated the Pharisees who were often respected by the people. They needed them politically but had little use for them otherwise. They were far more interested in keeping the power and wealth within their families and maintaining their exclusive relationships with Rome.
Rome was ruthless with civil disturbance and the Sadducees had the most to lose.
Why would a group of common, uneducated people believing in resurrection be so intimidating?
Here is what N.T. Wright says, “To the Sadducees, belief in the resurrection-as-revolutionary-doctrine “threatened their own position. People who believe that their God is about to make a new world, and that those who die in loyalty to him in the meantime will rise again to share gloriously in it, are far more likely to lose respect for a wealthy aristocracy than people who think that this life, this world and this age are the only ones there will ever be.”
The doctrine of “resurrection” is not some “pie-in-the-sky” idea of a fully future hope.
“Resurrection,” has implications for present living. It concerns “the creator God acting within history to put right what is wrong.” This is subversive and revolutionary and, therefore, threatening to people like the Sadducees, who held much power.”
If resurrection is true then there is a life after death and if that is true then what we do in this life matters. There will be judgment and we will be accountable. The Sadducees had no belief in life after death. There was only this life and no more. There was nothing miraculous or supernatural. There was nothing worth dying for.
What do you do with people who are not afraid of death? They are not suicidal but they have resolved the issue of dying for something. They have accepted the consequences. These people are dangerous.
6. They are especially dangerous when they believe in an exclusive religion. Worse, they believe in an exclusive Savior. I suspect the Sadducees were not as bothered about the healing as they were about it being done in the name of Jesus. In fact, that seems to be their major concern and the one thing they want the disciples to stop doing – teaching and preaching in the name of Jesus. Stop saying what you have seen and heard.
It’s fine to do acts of kindness – just don’t mention Jesus. In fact, it might make sense to commend them for their good works and gradually draw them into having a place at the table. Moving them away from being willing to die for something toward giving them some great mission to live for makes sense. Make them more interested in a full life of doing good than a noble death. Give them something to live for that is more appealing than hope in life after death. In fact, a life totally committed to doing good may take their eyes off eternity completely. Get them focused on making their way in this world – of fixing this world – and they will begin to forget about their interest in the next. Staying alive and doing important things will distract them from being willing to die.
What happens when we become so concerned with doing good things that we lose our way or when the name of Jesus becomes an offense to people who are fine with our good deeds but don’t want to hear the name of Jesus? Matt Chandler at the Village Church in Dallas says this:
“What ends up happening when you’re in an environment in which the claims of Christ and the Word of God become offensive to the predominant culture? The idea is, “Let’s soften the stances of the Bible in order to win people to Jesus. Because really Jesus is what it’s all about. I mean, it’s not about this sexuality conversation or this marriage conversation or this or that. It’s really just about Jesus. Let’s forget about all of that. In fact, let’s twist and tinker that to make it more palatable to predominant culture, and let’s just focus on Jesus.” Every time what ends up being discovered is that it’s not just those issues that are offensive; it’s Jesus himself. What goes out the window next is the atoning work of Jesus Christ. It’s simply replaced with doing good to people. People get together at churches, and they go, “Let’s feed the poor. Let’s engage those who are hungry. Let’s do good deeds, and let’s help alleviate the suffering of this world.” To back away from the teachings of Scripture around issues that our culture finds offensive is to wave the white flag on human flourishing. It is to say, “Our creator God does not know what is best for his creation. Creation knows what’s best, not the Creator.” That’s madness. But you’re seeing all over the place under the banner of Jesus Christ those who say, “That’s not what the Bible really means. I mean, I know it’s been interpreted that way for thousands of years, but, man, obviously God didn’t see this day coming. I mean, because if he knew where we would be today, he would see how oppressive and cruel these commands are.” See, Jesus doesn’t need some Botox shots in his face. He doesn’t need a makeover. He doesn’t need you to make him look good. He is good, and he is good when he engages a man or a woman, when he engages a person, and says, “This is sinful. It’s not what I have for you. This is what I have for you.” That’s not cruel. That’s gracious. What would be cruel is if God went, “Do you know what? You’re right. That’s what you desire. Go.”
7. Late in his life in 1 Peter 3:14 Peter says, “Do not fear what they fear” and I wonder if it is not the Sadducees he is talking about in a way. What is it they fear? They fear anything that threatens their elitism and their control. They fear the new. They fear anyone who is so calm about dying for something. They fear judgment. They fear any religion that is more than just one of many. They fear anything that says there is more to life than what we can see and there is more to life than this world.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
They feared anyone with hope or with desire for anything that was beyond the ability of this world to satisfy because they had none of it. Even while they built bigger barns their souls were wasting away to nothing.
8. Finally, look at what chain of events are set in motion by this chance meeting of three men in a crowd.
The church immediately grows by 5,000.
They are moved from enjoying the favor of all the people to persecution.
They are forced to leave Jerusalem.
Saul is converted.
The church goes global. (Ironically, the Sadducees lasted only another forty years and disappeared forever.)
One act of kindness is the turning point for the future of the church. It puts in play a series of events that none of them could have imagined. They were not looking for a niche or a market or a plan or even a ministry focus. They did not turn that miracle into a separate ministry. They were ordinary and unschooled men who had been with Jesus. They were merely on their way to what was routine when everything changed forever.
Acts of kindness done boldly in the name of Jesus still confuse and amaze the world.