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‘THEN SHALL THE LAME MAN LEAP AS AN HART’
Act_3:1 - Act_3:16 .
‘Many wonders and signs were done by the Apostles’ Act_2:43, but this one is recorded in detail, both because it was conspicuous as wrought in the Temple, and because it led to weighty consequences. The narrative is so vivid and full of minute particulars that it suggests an eye-witness. Was Peter Luke’s informant? The style of the story is so like that of Mark’s Gospel that we might reasonably presume so.
The scene and the persons are first set before us. It was natural that a close alliance should be cemented between Peter and John, both because they were the principal members of the quartet which stood first among the Apostles, and because they were so unlike each other, and therefore completed each other. Peter’s practical force and eye for externals, and John’s more contemplative nature and eye for the unseen, needed one another. So we find them together in the judgment hall, at the sepulchre, and here.
They ‘went up to the Temple,’ or, to translate more exactly and more picturesquely, ‘were going up,’ when the incident to be recorded stayed them. They had passed through the court, and came to a gate leading into the inner court, which was called ‘Beautiful.’ from its artistic excellence, when they were arrested by the sight of a lame beggar, who had been carried there every day for many years to appeal, by the display of his helplessness, to the entering worshippers. Precisely similar sights may be seen to-day at the doors of many a famous European church and many a mosque. He mechanically wailed out his formula, apparently scarcely looking at the two strangers, nor expecting a response. Long habit and many rebuffs had not made him hopeful, but it was his business to ask, and so he asked.
Some quick touch of pity shot through the two friends’ hearts, which did not need to be spoken in order that each might feel it to be shared by the other. So they paused, and, as was in keeping with their characters, Peter took speech in hand, while John stood by assenting. Purposed devotion is well delayed when postponed in order to lighten misery.
There must have been something magnetic in Peter’s voice and steady gaze as he said, ‘Look on us!’ It was a strange preface, if only some small coin was to follow. It kindled some flicker of hope of he knew not what in the beggar. He expected to receive ‘something’ from them, and, no doubt, was asking himself what. Expectation and receptivity were being stirred in him, though he could not divine what was coming. We have no right to assume that his state of mind was operative in fitting him to be cured, nor to call his attitude ‘faith,’ but still he was lifted from his usual dreary hopelessness, and some strange anticipation was creeping into his heart.
Then comes the grand word of power. Again Peter is spokesman, but John takes part, though silently. With a fixed gaze, which told of concentrated purpose, and went to the lame man’s heart, Peter triumphantly avows what most men are ashamed of, and try to hide: ‘Silver and gold have I none.’ He had ‘left all and followed Christ’; he had not made demands on the common stock. Empty pockets may go along with true wealth.
There is a fine flash of exultant confidence in Peter’s next words, which is rather spoiled by the Authorised Version. He did not say ‘ such as I have,’ as it it was inferior to money, which he had not, but he said ‘ what I have’ Rev. Ver.,-a very different tone. The expression eloquently magnifies the power which he possessed as far more precious than wealth, and it speaks of his assurance that he did possess it-an assurance which rested, not only on his faith in his Lord’s promise and gift, but on his experience in working former miracles.
How deep his words go into the obligations of possession! ‘What I have I give’ should be the law for all Christians in regard to all that they have, and especially in regard to spiritual riches. God gives us these, not only in order that we may enjoy them ourselves, but in order that we may impart, and so in our measure enter into the joy of our Lord and know the greater blessedness of giving than of receiving. How often it has been true that a poor church has been a miracle-working church, and that, when it could not say ‘Silver and gold have I none’ it has also lost the power of saying, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk’!
The actual miracle is most graphically narrated. With magnificent boldness Peter rolls out his Master’s name, there, in the court of the Temple, careless who may hear. He takes the very name that had been used in scorn, and waves it like a banner of victory. His confidence in his possession of power was not confidence in himself, but in his Lord. When we can peal forth the Name with as much assurance of its miracle-working power as Peter did, we too shall be able to make the lame walk. A faltering voice is unworthy to speak such words, and will speak them in vain.
The process of cure is minutely described. Peter put out his hand to help the lame man up, and, while he was doing so, power came into the shrunken muscles and weak ankles, so that the cripple felt that he could raise himself, and, though all passed in a moment, the last part of his rising was his own doing, and what began with his being ‘lifted up’ ended in his ‘leaping up.’ Then came an instant of standing still, to steady himself and make sure of his new strength, and then he began to walk.
The interrupted purpose of devotion could now be pursued, but with a gladsome addition to the company. How natural is that ‘walking and leaping and praising God’! The new power seemed so delightful, so wonderful, that sober walking did not serve. It was a strange way of going into the Temple, but people who are borne along by the sudden joy of new gifts beyond hope need not be expected to go quietly, and sticklers for propriety who blamed the man’s extravagance, and would have had him pace along with sober gait and downcast eyes, like a Pharisee, did not know what made him thus obstreperous, even in his devout thankfulness. ‘Leaping and praising God’ do make a singular combination, but before we blame, let us be sure that we understand.
One of the old manuscripts inserts a clause which brings out more clearly that there was a pause, during which the three remained in the Temple in prayer. It reads, ‘And when Peter and John came out, he came out with them, holding them, and they [the people] being astonished, stood in the porch,’ etc. So we have to think of the buzzing crowd, waiting in the court for their emergence from the sanctuary. Solomon’s porch was, like the Beautiful gate, on the east side of the Temple enclosure, and may probably have been a usual place of rendezvous for the brethren, as it had been a resort of their Lord.
It was a great moment, and Peter, the unlearned Galilean, the former cowardly renegade, rose at once to the occasion. Truly it was given him in that hour what to speak. His sermon is distinguished by its undaunted charging home the guilt of Christ’s death on the nation, its pitying recognition of the ignorance which had done the deed, and its urgent entreaty. We here deal with its beginning only. ‘Why marvel ye at this?’-it would have been a marvel if they had not marvelled. The thing was no marvel to the Apostle, because he believed that Jesus was the Christ and reigned in Heaven. Miracles fall into their place and become supremely ‘natural’ when we have accepted that great truth.
The fervent disavowal of their ‘own power or holiness’ as concerned in the healing is more than a modest disclaimer. It leads on to the declaration of who is the true Worker of all that is wrought for men by the hands of Christians. That disavowal has to be constantly repeated by us, not so much to turn away men’s admiration or astonishment from us, as to guard our own foolish hearts from taking credit for what it may please Jesus to do by us as His tools.
The declaration of Christ as the supreme Worker is postponed till after the solemn indictment of the nation. But the true way to regard the miracle is set forth at once, as being God’s glorifying of Jesus. Peter employs a designation of our Lord which is peculiar to these early chapters of Acts. He calls Him God’s ‘Servant,’ which is a quotation of the Messianic title in the latter part of Isaiah, ‘the Servant of the Lord.’
The fiery speaker swiftly passes to contrast God’s glorifying with Israel’s rejection. The two points on which he seizes are noteworthy. ‘Ye delivered Him up’; that is, to the Roman power. That was the deepest depth of Israel’s degradation. To hand over their Messiah to the heathen,-what could be completer faithlessness to all Israel’s calling and dignity? But that was not all: ‘ye denied Him.’ Did Peter remember some one else than the Jews who had done the same, and did a sudden throb of conscious fellowship even in that sin make his voice tremble for a moment? Israel’s denial was aggravated because it was ‘in the presence of Pilate,’ and had overborne his determination to release his prisoner. The Gentile judge would rise in the judgment to condemn them, for he had at least seen that Jesus was innocent, and they had hounded him on to an illegal killing, which was murder as laid to his account, but national apostasy as laid to theirs.
These were daring words to speak in the Temple to that crowd. But the humble fisherman had been filled with the Spirit, who is the Strengthener, and the fear of man was dead in him. If we had never heard of Pentecost, we should need to invent something of the sort to make intelligible the transformation of these timid folk, the first disciples, into heroes. A dead Christ, lying in an unknown grave, could never have inspired His crushed followers with such courage, insight, and elastic confidence and gladness in the face of a frowning world.
‘ THEN SHALL THE LAME MAN LEAP AS AN HART’
‘THE PRINCE OF LIFE’
Act_3:14 - Act_3:15 .
This early sermon of Peter’s, to the people, is marked by a comparative absence of the highest view of Christ’s person and work. It is open to us to take one of two explanations of that fact. We may either say that the Apostle was but learning the full significance of the marvellous events that had passed so recently, or we may say that he suited his words to his audience, and did not declare all that he knew.
At the same time, we should not overlook the significance of the Christology which it does contain. ‘His child Jesus’ is really a translation of Isaiah’s ‘Servant of the Lord.’ ‘The Holy One and the Just’ is a distinct assertion of Jesus’ perfect, sinless manhood, and ‘the Prince of Life’ plainly asserts Jesus to be the Lord and Source of it.
Notice, too, the pathetic ‘denied’: was Peter thinking of the shameful hour in his own experience? It is a glimpse into the depth of his penitence, and the tenderness with others’ sins which it had given him, that he twice uses the word here, as if he had said ‘You have done no more than I did myself. It is not for me to heap reproaches on you. We have been alike in sin-and I can preach forgiveness to you sinners, because I have received it for myself.’
Notice, too, the manifold antitheses of the words. Barabbas is set against Christ; the Holy One and the Just against a robber, the Prince of Life against a murderer. ‘You killed’-’the Prince of Life.’ ‘You killed’-’God raised.’
There are here three paradoxes, three strange and contradictory things: the paradoxes of man’s perverted and fatal choice, of man’s hate bringing death to the Lord of life, and of God’s love and power causing life to come by death.
I. The paradox of man’s fatal choice.
There occurs often in history a kind of irony in which the whole tendency of a time or of a conflict is summed up in a single act, and certainly the fact which is referred to here is one of these. Let us put it as it would have seemed to an onlooker then, leaving out for the moment any loftier meaning which may attach to it.
Peter’s words here, thus boldly addressed to the people, are a strong testimony to the impression which the character of Christ had made on His contemporaries. ‘The Holy One and the Just’ implies moral perfection. The whole narrative of the Crucifixion brings out that impression. Pilate’s wife speaks with awe of ‘that just person.’ ‘Which of you convinceth me of sin?’ ‘If I have done evil, bear witness of the evil.’ ‘I find no fault in Him.’ We may take it for granted that the impression Jesus made among His contemporaries was, at the lowest, that He was a pure and good man.
The nation had to choose one of two. Jesus was the one; who was the other? A man half brigand, half rebel, who had raised some petty revolt against Rome, more as a pretext for robbery and crime than from patriotism, and whose hands reeked with blood. And this was the nation’s hero!
The juxtaposition throws a strong light on the people’s motive for rejecting Jesus. The rulers may have condemned Him for blasphemy, but the people had a more practical reason, and in it no doubt the rulers shared. It was not because He claimed to be the Messiah that they gave Him up to Pilate, but because He would not meet their notions of what the Messiah should be and do. If He had called them to arms, not a man of them would have betrayed Him to Pilate, but all, or the more daring of them, would have rallied to His standard. Their hate was the measure of their deep disappointment with His course. If instead of showing love and meekness, He had blown up the coals of religious hatred; if instead of going about doing good, He had mustered the men of lawless Galilee for a revolt, would these fawning hypocrites have dragged him to Pilate on the charge of forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, and of claiming to be a King? Why, there was not one of them but would have been glad to murder every tax-gatherer in Palestine, not one of them but bore inextinguishable in his inmost heart the faith in ‘one Christ a King.’ And if that meek and silent martyr had only lifted His finger, He might have had legions of His accusers at His back, ready to sweep Pilate and his soldiers out of Jerusalem. They saw Christ’s goodness and holiness. It did not attract them. They wanted a Messiah who would bring them outward freedom by the use of outward weapons, and so they all shouted ‘Not this man but Barabbas!’ The whole history of the nation was condensed in that one cry-their untamable obstinacy, their blindness to the light of God, their fierce grasp of the promises which they did not understand, their hard worldliness, their cruel patriotism, their unquenchable hatred of their oppressors, which was only equalled by their unquenchable hatred of those who showed them the only true way for deliverance.
And this strange paradox is not confined to these Jews. It is repeated wherever Christ is presented to men. We are told that all men naturally admire goodness, and so on. Men mostly know it when they see it, but I doubt whether they all either admire or like it. People generally had rather have something more outward and tangible. It is not spiritualising this incident, but only referring it to the principle of which it is an illustration, to ask you to see in it the fatal choice of multitudes. Christ is set before us all, and His beauty is partially seen but is dimmed by externals. Men’s desires are fixed on gross sensuous delights, or on success in business, or on intellectual eminence, or on some of the thousand other visible and temporal objects that outshine, to vulgar eyes, the less dazzling lustre of the things unseen. They appreciate these, and make heroes of the men who have won them. These are their ideals, but of Jesus they have little care.
And is it not true that all such competitors of His, when they lead men to prefer them to Him, are ‘murderers,’ in a sadder sense than Barabbas was? Do they not slay the souls of their admirers? Is it not but too ghastly a reality that all who thus choose them draw down ruin on themselves and ‘love death’?
This fatal paradox is being repeated every day in the lives of thousands. The crowds who yelled, ‘Not this man but Barabbas!’ were less guilty and less mad than those who to-day cry, ‘Not Jesus but worldly wealth, or fleeting bodily delights, or gratified ambition!’
II. The paradox of Death’s seeming conquest over the Lord of Life.
The word rendered ‘Prince’ means an originator, and hence a leader and hence a lord. Whether Peter had yet reached a conception of the divinity of Jesus or not, he had clearly reached a much higher one of Him than he had attained before His death. In some sense he was beginning to recognise that His relation to ‘life’ was loftier and more mysterious than that of other men. Was it His death only that thus elevated the disciples’ thoughts of Jesus? Strange that if He died and there an end, such a result should have followed. One would have expected His death to have shattered their faith in Him, but somehow it strengthened their faith. Why did they not all continue to lament, as did the two of them on the road to Emmaus: ‘We trusted that this had been He who should have redeemed Israel’-but now we trust no more, and our dreams are buried in His grave? Why did they not go back to Galilee and their nets? What raised their spirits, their courage, and increased their understanding of Him, and their faith in Him? How came His death to be the occasion of consolidating, not of shattering, their fellowship? How came Peter to be so sure that a man who had died was the ‘Prince of Life’? The answer, the only one psychologically possible, is in what Peter here proclaims to unwilling ears, ‘Whom God raised from the dead.’
The fact of the Resurrection sets the fact of the Death in another light. Meditating on these twin facts, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, we hear Himself speaking as He did to John in Patmos: ‘I am the Living One who became dead, and lo, I am alive for evermore!’
If we try to listen with the ears of these first hearers of Peter’s words, we shall better appreciate his daring paradox. Think of the tremendous audacity of the claim which they make, that Jesus should be the ‘Prince of Life,’ and of the strange contradiction to it which the fact that they ‘killed’ Him seems to give. How could death have power over the Prince of Life? That sounds as if, indeed, the ‘sun were turned into darkness,’ or as if fire became ice. That brief clause ‘ye killed the Prince of Life’ must have seemed sheer absurdity to the hearers whose hands were still red with the blood of Jesus.
But there is another paradox here. It was strange that death should be able to invade that Life, but it is no less strange that men should be able to inflict it. But we must not forget that Jesus died, not because men slew Him, but because He willed to die. The whole of the narratives of the Crucifixion in the Gospels avoid using the word ‘death.’ Such expressions as He ‘gave up the ghost,’ or the like, are used, implying what is elsewhere distinctly asserted, that His death was His offering of Himself, the result of His own volition, not of exhaustion or of torture. Thus, even in dying, He showed Himself the Lord of Life and the Master of Death. Men indeed fastened Jesus to the Cross, but He died, not because He was so fastened, but because He willed to ‘make His soul an offering for sin.’ Bound as it were to a rock in the midst of the ocean, He, of His own will, and at His own time, bowed His head, and let the waves of the sea of death roll over it.
III. The triumphant divine paradox of life given and death conquered through a death.
Jesus is ‘Prince’ in the sense of being source of life to mankind, just because He died. Hie death is the death of Death. His apparent defeat is His real victory.
By His death He takes away our sins.
By His death He abolishes death.
The physical fact remains, but all else which makes the ‘sting of death’ to men is gone. It is no more a solitude, for He has died, and thereby He becomes a companion in that hour to every lover of His. Its darkness changes into light to those who, by ‘following Him,’ have, even there, ‘the light of life.’ This Samson carried away the gates of the prison on His own strong shoulders when He came forth from it. It is His to say, ‘O death! I will be thy plague.’
By His death He diffuses life.
‘The Spirit was not given’ till Jesus was ‘glorified,’ which glorification is John’s profound synonym for His crucifixion. When the alabaster box of His pure body was broken, the whole house of humanity was filled with the odour of the ointment.
So the great paradox becomes a blessed truth, that man’s deepest sin works out God’s highest act of Love and Pardon.
‘ THEN SHALL THE LAME MAN LEAP AS AN HART’
THE HEALING POWER OF THE NAME
Peter said, ‘Why look ye so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk?’ eagerly disclaiming being anything else than a medium through which Another’s power operated. Jesus Christ said, ‘That ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins, I say unto thee, Arise, take up thy bed, and walk’-unmistakably claiming to be a great deal more than a medium. Why the difference? Jesus Christ did habitually in His miracles adopt the tone on which Moses once ventured when he smote the rock and said, ‘Ye rebels! must we bring the water for you?’ and he was punished for it by exclusion from the Promised Land. Why the difference? Moses was ‘in all his house as a servant, but Christ as a Son over His own house’; and what was arrogance in the servant was natural and reasonable in the Son.
The gist of this verse is a reference to Jesus Christ as a source of miraculous power, not merely because He wrought miracles when on earth, but because from heaven He gave the power of which Peter was but the channel. Now it seems to me that in these emphatic and singularly reduplicated words of the Apostle there are two or three very important lessons which I offer for your consideration.
I. The first is the power of the Name.
Now the Name of which Peter is speaking is not the collocation of syllables which are sounded ‘Jesus Christ.’ His hearers were familiar with the ancient and Eastern method of regarding names as very much more than distinguishing labels. They are, in the view of the Old Testament, attempts at a summary description of things by their prominent characteristics. They are condensed definitions. And so the Old Testament uses the expression, the ‘Name’ of God, as equivalent to ‘that which God is manifested to be.’ Hence, in later days-and there are some tendencies thither even in Scripture-in Jewish literature ‘the Name’ came to be a reverential synonym for God Himself. And there are traces that this peculiar usage with regard to the divine Name was beginning to shape itself in the Church with reference to the name of Jesus, even at that period in which my text was spoken. For instance, in the fifth chapter we read that the Apostles ‘departed from the council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for the Name,’ and we find at a much later date that missionaries of the Gospel are described by the Apostle John as going forth ‘for the sake of the Name.’
The name of Christ, then, is the representation or embodiment of that which Christ is declared to be for us men, and it is that Name, the totality of what He is manifested to be, in which lies all power for healing and for strengthening. The Name, that is, the whole Christ, in His nature, His offices, His work, His Incarnation, His Life, His Death, Resurrection, Session at the right hand of God-it is this Christ whose Name made that man strong, and will make us strong. Brethren, let us remember that, while fragments of the Name will have fragmentary power, as the curative virtue that resides in any substance belongs to the smallest grain of it, if detached from the mass-whilst fragments of the Name of Christ have power, thanks be to Him! so that no man can have even a very imperfect and rudimentary view of what Jesus Christ is and does, without getting strength and healing in proportion to the completeness of his conception, yet in order to realise all that He can be and do, a man must take the whole Christ as He is revealed.
The Early Church had a symbol for Jesus Christ, a fish, to which they were led because the Greek word for a fish is made up of the initials of the words which they conceived to be the Name. And what was it? ‘ Jesus Christ , God’s Son , Saviour’; Jesus , humanity; Christ , the apex of Revelation, the fulfilment of prophecy, the Anointed Prophet, Priest, and King; Son of God , the divine nature: and all these, the humanity, the Messiahship, the divinity, found their sphere of activity in the last name, which, without them, would in its fulness have been impossible- Saviour . He is not such a Saviour as He may be to each of us, unless our conception of the Name grasps these three truths: His humanity, His Messiahship, His divinity. ‘His Name has made this man strong.’
II. Notice how the power of the Name comes to operate.
Now, if you will observe the language of my text, you will note that Peter says, as it would appear, the same thing twice over: ‘His Name, through faith in His Name, hath made this man strong.’ And then, as if he were saying something else, he adds what seems to be the same thing: ‘Yea! the faith which is by Him hath given him this perfect soundness.’
Now, note that in the first of these two statements nothing appears except the ‘man,’ the ‘Name,’ and ‘faith’ I take it, though of course it may be questionable, that that clause refers to the man’s faith, and that we have in it the intentional exclusion of the human workers, and are presented with the only two parties really concerned-at the one end the Name, at the other end ‘this man made strong.’ And the link of connection between the two in this clause is faith-that is, the man’s trust. But then, if we come to the next clause, we find that although Peter has just previously disclaimed all merit in the cure, yet there is a sense in which some one’s faith, working as from without, gave to the man ‘this perfect soundness.’ And it seems very natural to me to understand that here, where human faith is represented as being, in some subordinate sense, the bestower of the healing which really the Name had bestowed, it is the faith of the human miracle-worker or medium which is referred to. Peter’s faith did give, but Peter only gave what he had received through faith. And so let all the praise be given to the water, and none to the cup.
Whether that be a fair interpretation of the words of my text, with their singular and apparently meaningless tautology or no, at all events the principle which is involved in the explanation is one that I wish to dwell upon briefly now; and that is, that in order for the Name, charged and supercharged with healing and strengthening power as it is, to come into operation, there must be a twofold trust.
The healer, the medium of healing, must have faith in the Name. Yes! of course. In all regions the first requisite, the one indispensable condition, of a successful propagandist, is enthusiastic confidence in what he promulgates. ‘That man will go far,’ said a cynical politician about one of his rivals; ‘he believes every word he says.’ And that is the condition always of getting other people to believe us. Faith is contagious; men catch from other people’s tongues the accent of conviction. If one wants to enforce any opinion upon others, the first condition is that he shall be utterly sel-oblivious; and when he is manifestly saying, as the Apostles in this context did, ‘Do not fix your eyes on us, as though we were doing anything,’ then hearts will bow before him, as the trees of the wood are bowed by the wind.
If that is true in all regions, it is eminently true in regard to religion. For what we need there most is not to be instructed, but to be impressed. Most of us have, lying dormant in the bedchamber and infirmary of our brains, convictions which only need to be awakened to revolutionise our lives. Now one of the most powerful ways of waking them is contact with any man in whom they are awake. So all successful teachers and messengers of Jesus Christ have had this characteristic in common, however unlike each other they have been. The divergences of temperament, of moods, of point of view, of method of working which prevailed even in the little group of Apostles, and broadly distinguished Paul from Peter, Peter from James, and Paul and Peter and James from John, are only types of what has been repeated ever since. Get together the great missionaries of the Cross, and you would have the most extraordinary collection of miscellaneous idiosyncrasies that the world ever saw, and they would not understand each other, as some of them wofully misunderstood each other when here together. But there was one characteristic in them all, a flaming earnestness of belief in the power of the Name. And so it did not matter much, if at all, what their divergences were. Each of them was fitted for the Master’s use.
And so, brethren, here is the reason-I do not say the only reason, but the main one, and that which most affects us-for the slow progress, and even apparent failure, of Christianity. It has fallen into the hands of a Church that does not half believe its own Gospel. By reason of formality and ceremonial and sacerdotalism and a lazy kind of expectation that, somehow or other, the benefits of Christ’s love can come to men apart from their own personal faith in Him, the Church has largely ceased to anticipate that great things can be done by its utterance of the Name. And if you have, I do not say ministers, or teachers, or official proclaimers, or Sunday-school teachers, or the like, but I say if you have a Church , that is honeycombed with doubt, and from which the strength and flood-tide of faith have in many cases ebbed away, why, it may go on uttering its formal proclamations of the Name till the Day of Judgment, and all that will come of it will be-’The man in whom the devils were, leaped upon them, and overcame them, and said’-as he had a good right to say-’Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are ye?’ You cannot kindle a fire with snowballs. If the town crier goes into a quiet corner of the marketplace and rings his bell apologetically, and gives out his message in a whisper, it is small wonder if nobody listens. And that is the way in which too many so-called Christian teachers and communities hold forth the Name, as if begging pardon of the world for being so narrow and old-fashioned as to believe in it still.
And no less necessary is faith on the other side. The recipient must exercise trust. This lame man, no doubt, like the other that Paul looked at in a similar case, had faith to be healed. That was the length of his tether. He believed that he was going to have his legs made strong, and they were made strong accordingly. If he had believed more, he would have got more. Let us hope that he did get more, because he believed more, at a later day. But in the meantime the Apostles’ faith was not enough to cure him; and it is not enough for you that Jesus Christ should be standing with all His power at your elbow, and that, earnestly and enthusiastically, some of Christ’s messengers may press upon you the acceptance of Him as a Saviour. He is of no good in the world to you, and never will be, unless you have the personal faith that knits you to Him.
It cannot be otherwise. Depend upon it, if Jesus Christ could save every one without terms and conditions at all, He would be only too glad to do it. But it cannot be done. The nature of His work, and the sort of blessings that He brings by His work, are such as that it is an impossibility that any man should receive them unless he has that trust which, beginning with the acceptance by the understanding of Christ as Saviour, passes on to the assent of the will, and the outgoing of the heart, and the yielding of the whole nature to Him. How can a truth do any good to any one who does not believe in it? How is it possible that, if you do not take a medicine, it will work? How can you expect to see, unless you open your eyes? How do you propose to have your blood purified, if you do not fill your lungs with air? Is it of any use to have gas-fittings in your house, if they are not connected with the main? Will a water tap run in your sculleries, if there is no pipe that joins it with the source of supply? My dear friend, these rough illustrations are only approximations to the absolute impossibility that Christ can help, heal, or save any man without the man’s personal faith. ‘Whosoever believeth’ is no arbitrary limitation, but is inseparable from the very nature of the salvation given.
III. And now, lastly, note the effects of the power of the Name.
The Apostle puts in two separate clauses what, in the case in hand, was really one thing-’hath made this man strong,’ and ‘hath given him perfect soundness.’ Ah! we can part the two, cannot we? There is the disease, the disease of an alienated heart, of a perverted will, of a swollen self, all of which we need to have cured and checked before we can do right. And there is weakness, the impotence to do what is good, ‘how to perform I find not,’ and we need to be strengthened as well as cured. There is only one thing that will do these two, and that is that Christ’s power, ay, and Christ’s own life, should pass, as it will pass if we trust Him, into our foulness and precipitate all the impurity-into our weakness and infuse strength. ‘A reed shaken with the wind,’ and without substance or solidity to resist, may be placed in what is called a petrifying well, and, by the infiltration of stony substance into its structure, may be turned into a rigid mass, like a little bar of iron. So, if Christ comes into my poor, weak, tremulous nature, there will be an infiltration into the very substance of my being of a present power which will make me strong.
My brother, you and I need, first and foremost, the healing, and then the strength-giving power, which we never find in its completeness anywhere but in Christ, and which we shall always find in Him.
And now notice, Jesus Christ does not make half cures-’this perfect soundness.’ If any man, in contact with Him, is but half delivered from his infirmities and purged from his sins, it is not because Christ’s power is inadequate, but because his own faith is defective.
Christ’s cures should be visible to all around. A man’s own testimony is not the most satisfactory. Peter appeals to the bystanders. ‘You have seen him lying here for years, a motionless lump of mendicancy, at the Temple gate. Now you see him walking and leaping and praising God. Is it a cure, or is it not?’ You professing Christians, would you like to stand that test, to empanel a jury of people that have no sympathy with your religion, in order that they might decide whether you were healed and strengthened or not? It is a good thing for us when the world bears witness that Jesus Christ’s power has come into us, and made us what we are.
And so, dear friends, I lay all these thoughts on your hearts. Christ’s gift is amply sufficient to deliver us from all evils of weakness, sickness, incapacity: to endue us with all gifts of spiritual and immortal strength. But, while the limit of what Christ gives is His boundless wealth, the limit of what you possess is your faith. The rainfall comes down in the same copiousness on rock and furrow, but it runs off the one, having stimulated no growth and left no blessing, and it sinks into the other and quickens every dormant germ into life which will one day blossom into beauty. We are all of us either rock or soil, and which we are depends on the reality, the firmness, and the force of our faith in Christ. He Himself has laid down the principle on which He bestows His gifts when He says, ‘According to thy faith be it unto thee!’
THE SERVANT OF THE LORD
So ended Peter’s bold address to the wondering crowd gathered in the Temple courts around him, with his companion John and the lame man whom they had healed. A glance at his words will show how extraordinarily outspoken and courageous they are. He charges home on his hearers the guilt of Christ’s death, unfalteringly proclaims His Messiahship, bears witness to His Resurrection and Ascension, asserts that He is the End and Fulfilment of ancient revelation, and offers to all the great blessings that Christ brings. And this fiery, tender oration came from the same lips which, a few weeks before, had been blanched with fear before a flippant maidservant, and had quivered as they swore, ‘I know not the man!’
One or two simple observations may be made by way of introduction. ‘Unto you first’-’first’ implies second; and so the Apostle has shaken himself clear of the Jews’ narrow belief that Messias belonged to them only, and is already beginning to contemplate the possibility of a transference of the kingdom of God to the outlying Gentiles. ‘God having raised up His Son’-that expression has no reference, as it might at first seem, to the fact of the Resurrection; but is employed in the same sense as, and indeed looks back to, previous words. For he had just quoted Moses’ declaration, ‘A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you from your brethren.’ So it is Christ’s equipment and appointment for His office, and not His Resurrection, which is spoken about here. ‘His Son Jesus’-the Revised Version more accurately translates ‘His Servant Jesus.’ I shall have a word or two to say about that translation presently, but in the meantime I simply note the fact.
With this slight explanation let us now turn to two or three of the aspects of the words before us.
I. First, I note the extraordinary transformation which they indicate in the speaker.
I have already referred to his cowardice a very short time before. That transformation from a coward to a hero he shared in common with his brethren. On one page we read, ‘They all forsook Him and fled.’ We turn over half a dozen leaves and we read: ‘They departed from the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.’ What did that?
Then there is another transformation no less swift, sudden, and inexplicable, except on one hypothesis. All through Christ’s life the disciples had been singularly slow to apprehend the highest aspects of His teachings, and they had clung with a strange obstinacy to their narrow Pharisaic and Jewish notions of the Messiah as coming to establish a temporal dominion, in which Israel was to ride upon the necks of the subject nations. And now, all at once, this Apostle, and his fellows with him, have stepped from these puerile and narrow ideas out into this large place, that he and they recognise that the Jew had no exclusive possession of Messiah’s blessings, and that these blessings consisted in no external kingdom, but lay mainly and primarily in His ‘turning every one of you from your iniquities.’ At one time the Apostles stood upon a gross, low, carnal level, and in a few weeks they were, at all events, feeling their way to, and to a large extent had possession of, the most spiritual and lofty aspects of Christ’s mission. What did that?
Something had come in between which wrought more, in a short space, than all the three years of Christ’s teaching and companionship had done for them. What was it? Why did they not continue in the mood which two of them are reported to have been in, after the Crucifixion, when they said-’It is all up! we trusted that this had been He,’ but the force of circumstances has shivered the confidence into fragments, and there is no such hope left for us any longer. What brought them out of that Slough of Despond?
I would put it to any fair-minded man whether the psychological facts of this sudden maturing of these childish minds, and their sudden change from slinking cowards into heroes who did not blanch before the torture and the scaffold, are accountable, if you strike out the Resurrection, the Ascension, and Pentecost? It seems to me that, for the sake of avoiding a miracle, the disbelievers in the Resurrection accept an impossibility, and tie themselves to an intellectual absurdity. And I for one would rather believe in a miracle than believe in an uncaused change, in which the Apostles take exactly the opposite course from that which they necessarily must have taken, if there had not been the facts that the New Testament asserts that there were, Christ’s rising again from the dead, and Ascension.
Why did not the Church share the fate of John’s disciples, who scattered like sheep without a shepherd when Herod chopped off their master’s head? Why did not the Church share the fate of that abortive rising, of which we know that when Theudas, its leader, was slain, ‘all, as many as believed on him, came to nought.’ Why did these men act in exactly the opposite way? I take it that, as you cannot account for Christ except on the hypothesis that He is the Son of the Highest, you cannot account for the continuance of the Christian Church for a week after the Crucifixion, except on the hypothesis that the men who composed it were witnesses of His Resurrection, and saw Him floating upwards and received into the Shechinah cloud and lost to their sight. Peter’s change, witnessed by the words of my text-these bold and clear-sighted words-seems to me to be a perfect monstrosity, and incapable of explication, unless he saw the risen Lord, beheld the ascended Christ, was touched with the fiery Spirit descending on Pentecost, and so ‘out of weakness was made strong,’ and from a babe sprang to the stature of a man in Christ.
II. Look at these words as setting forth a remarkable view of Christ.
I have already referred to the fact that the word rendered ‘son’ ought rather to be rendered ‘servant.’ It literally means ‘child’ or ‘boy,’ and appears to have been used familiarly, just in the same fashion as we use the same expression ‘boy,’ or its equivalent ‘maid,’ as a more gentle designation for a servant. Thus the kindly centurion, when he would bespeak our Lord’s care for his menial, calls him his ‘boy’; and our Bible there translates rightly ‘servant.’
Again, the designation is that which is continually employed in the Greek translation of the Old Testament as the equivalent for the well-known prophetic phrase ‘the Servant of Jehovah,’ which, as you will remember, is characteristic of the second portion of the prophecies of Isaiah. And consequently we find that, in a quotation of Isaiah’s prophecy in the Gospel of Matthew, the very phrase of our text is there employed: ‘Behold My Servant whom I uphold!’
Now, it seems as if this designation of our Lord as God’s Servant was very familiar to Peter’s thoughts at this stage of the development of Christian doctrine. For we find the name employed twice in this discourse-in the thirteenth verse, ‘the God of our Fathers hath glorified His Servant Jesus,’ and again in my text. We also find it twice in the next chapter, where Peter, offering up a prayer amongst his brethren, speaks of ‘Thy Holy Child Jesus,’ and prays ‘that signs and wonders may be done through the name’ of that ‘Holy Child.’ So, then, I think we may fairly take it that, at the time in question, this thought of Jesus as the ‘Servant of the Lord’ had come with especial force to the primitive Church. And the fact that the designation never occurs again in the New Testament seems to show that they passed on from it into a deeper perception than even it attests of who and what this Jesus was in relation to God.
But, at all events, we have in our text the Apostle looking back to that dim, mysterious Figure which rises up with shadowy lineaments out of the great prophecy of ‘Isaiah,’ and thrilling with awe and wonder, as he sees, bit by bit, in the Face painted on the prophetic canvas, the likeness of the Face into which he had looked for three blessed years, that now began to tell him more than they had done whilst their moments were passing.
‘The Servant of the Lord’-that means, first of all, that Christ, in all which He does, meekly and obediently executes the Father’s will. As He Himself said, ‘I come not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him that sent Me.’ But it carries us further than that, to a point about which I would like to say one word now; and that is, the clear recognition that the very centre of Jewish prophecy is the revelation of the personality of the Christ. Now, it seems to me that present tendencies, discussions about the nature and limits of inspiration, investigations which, in many directions, are to be welcomed and are fruitful as to the manner of origin of the books of the Old Testament, and as to their collection into a Canon and a whole-that all this new light has a counterbalancing disadvantage, in that it tends somewhat to obscure in men’s minds the great central truth about the revelation of God in Israel-viz. that it was all progressive, and that its goal and end was Jesus Christ. ‘The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy,’ and however much we may have to learn-and I have no doubt that we have a great deal to learn, about the composition, the structure, the authorship, the date of these ancient books-I take leave to say that the unlearned reader, who recognises that they all converge on Jesus Christ, has hold of the clue of the labyrinth, and has come nearer to the marrow of the books than the most learned investigators, who see all manner of things besides in them, and do not see that ‘they that went before cried, saying, Hosanna! Blessed be He that cometh in the name of the Lord!’
And so I venture to commend to you, brethren-not as a barrier against any reverent investigation, not as stopping any careful study-this as the central truth concerning the ancient revelation, that it had, for its chief business, to proclaim the coming of the Servant of Jehovah, Jesus the Christ.
III. And now, lastly, look at these words as setting forth the true centre of Christ’s work.
‘He has sent Him to bless you in turning away every one of you from his iniquities.’ I have already spoken about the gross, narrow, carnal apprehensions of Messiah’s work which cleaved to the disciples during all our Lord’s life here, and which disturbed even the sanctity of the upper chamber at that last meal, with squabbles about precedence which had an eye to places in the court of the Messiah when He assumed His throne. But here Peter has shaken himself clear of all these, and has grasped the thought that, whatever derivative and secondary blessings of an external and visible sort may, and must, come in Messiah’s train, the blessing which He brings is of a purely spiritual and inward character, and consists in turning away single souls from their love and practice of evil. That is Christ’s true work.
The Apostle does not enlarge as to how it is done. We know how it is done. Jesus turns away men from sin because, by the magnetism of His love, and the attractive raying out of influence from His Cross, He turns them to Himself. He turns us from our iniquities by the expulsive power of a new affection, which, coming into our hearts like a great river into some foul Augean stable, sweeps out on its waters all the filth that no broom can ever clear out in detail. He turns men from their iniquities by His gift of a new life, kindred with that from which it is derived.
There is an old superstition that lightning turned whatever it struck towards the point from which the flash came, so that a tree with its thousand leaves had each of them pointed to that quarter in the heavens where the blaze had been.
And so Christ, when He flings out the beneficent flash that slays only our evil, and vitalises ourselves, turns us to Him, and away from our transgressions. ‘Turn us, O Christ, and we shall be turned.’
Ah, brethren! that is the blessing that we need most, for ‘iniquities’ are universal; and so long as man is bound to his sin it will embitter all sweetnesses, and neutralise every blessing. It is not culture, valuable as that is in many ways, that will avail to stanch man’s deepest wounds. It is not a new social order that will still the discontent and the misery of humanity. You may adopt collective economic and social arrangements, and divide property out as it pleases you. But as long as man continues selfish he will continue sinful, and as long as he continues sinful any social order will be pregnant with sorrow, ‘and when it is finished it will bring forth death.’ You have to go deeper down than all that, down as deep as this Apostle goes in this sermon of his, and recognise that Christ’s prime blessing is the turning of men from their iniquities, and that only after that has been done will other good come.
How shallow, by the side of that conception, do modern notions of Jesus as the great social Reformer look! These are true, but they want their basis, and their basis lies only here, that He is the Redeemer of individuals from their sins. There were people in Christ’s lifetime who were all untouched by His teachings, but when they found that He gave bread miraculously they said, ‘This is of a truth the Prophet! That’s the prophet for my money; the Man that can make bread, and secure material well-being.’ Have not certain modern views of Christ’s work and mission a good deal in common with these vulgar old Jews-views which regard Him mainly as contributing to the material good, the social and economical well-being of the world?
Now, I believe that He does that. And I believe that Christ’s principles are going to revolutionise society as it exists at present. But I am sure that we are on a false scent if we attempt to preach consequences without proclaiming their antecedents, and that such preaching will end, as all such attempts have ended, in confusion and disappointment.
They used to talk about Jesus Christ, in the first French Revolution, as ‘the Good Sansculotte .’ Perfectly true! But as the basis of that, and of all representations of Him, that will have power on the diseases of the community, we have to preach Him as the Saviour of the individual from his sin.
And so, brethren, has He saved you? Do you begin your notions of Jesus Christ where His work begins? Do you feel that what you want most is neither culture nor any superficial and external changes, but something that will deal with the deep, indwelling, rooted, obstinate self-regard which is the centre of all sin? And have you gone alone to Him as a sinful man? As the Apostle here suggests, Jesus Christ does not save communities. The doctor has his patients into the consulting-room one by one. There is no applying of Christ’s benefits to men in batches, by platoons and regiments, as Clovis baptized his Franks; but you have to go, every one of you, through the turnstile singly, and alone to confess, and alone to be absolved, and alone to be turned, from your iniquity.
If I might venture to alter the position of words in my text, I would lay them, so modified, on the hearts of all my friends whom my words may reach now, and say, ‘Unto you- unto thee , God, having raised up His Son Jesus, sent Him to bless you, first in turning away every one of you from his iniquities.’
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Acts 3". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18