After Pentecost: small miracle, big implications

Jun 6, 2017 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

A story about healing turns out to be the moment when God takes the Church outside the religious institution.

“Peter and John went to pray…” – we all know the Sunday School song, based on Acts 3:1-10. Of course no miracle, in the sense of a reversal of the laws of nature such as instantaneous healing, can be called insignificant. But while the New Testament insists that many miracles were performed by Jesus (eg Luke 7:21) and by the apostles (Acts 2:43), only a few were recorded. Of these, some are seen as theologically significant (as for example with the ‘signs’ in John), while others are vivid, demonstrating God’s power and Jesus’ compassion, life-changing for the individual who is healed and for the witnesses, but not necessarily game-changing in terms of revealing a new truth or changing the course of the narrative.

It seems at first as if this miracle occurring immediately after Pentecost in Acts 3, is in the latter category. The man himself was severely disabled from birth, unable to walk, and made his living from begging. His life changed in an encounter with the apostle Peter, who commanded him to walk in the name of Jesus; miraculously his legs were strengthened; he not only walked but jumped and danced as he praised God, and the bystanders were “filled with wonder and amazement”.

One could stop there, give thanks to God, reflect on what the man might have felt, and then park this miracle in our minds along with the many others recorded in the Gospels and Acts. We might go further and ask: does God heal today, and if so how should we pray for healing? While these are important applications, they would be consigning this miracle to the category of ‘small’ by which I mean at the level of God’s activity in the life of individuals. To leave this biblical story at verse 10 of chapter 3 would be to ignore the context, to ignore what follows, and so miss the author’s intention that we see this miracle as a turning point in the history of the world.

Writing as someone who suffers from a long term disability, the question “can God heal me?” is very important personally, and not just theoretically. But a question like “can God bring about revival in the nation?” is surely more important in the grand scheme of things. This story answers both questions: the ‘small’, of relevance to the hurting individual, and the ‘big’, concerning the salvation of humanity.

At the beginning of Acts we see the risen Jesus teaching his disciples about the coming Holy Spirit: “you will receive power…and you will be my witnesses”. This begins to be fulfilled ten days later in a house in Jerusalem, with a sound of rushing wind, visible tongues of fire and intelligible languages from around the world praising God, ie a demonstration of power, followed by Peter’s clear witness to Jesus as Saviour and Lord, and Gospel call to repentance and faith.

At the end of Acts chapter 2 we’re presented with a scene of miraculous fellowship of generosity, joy and praise, with unity around the teaching of the apostles, as they passed on what they had seen and heard from Jesus. Now, again, in chapter 3, the demonstration of the Spirit’s power in healing a lame man is followed by Peter’s witness to Jesus (3:12-26), and again, resulting in rapid growth of the new church community, now up to 5000 (4:4). Surely now nothing can stand in the way of God’s intention as the apostles had hoped for when with Jesus: the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel (1:6)?

But there is something that stands in the way of the exponential expansion of the new Jesus community and its peaceful revival of the nation: the religious institutions. As Peter and the apostles minister in the power of the Spirit and preach salvation in Christ, the religious authorities begin by permitting their initially small gatherings in and around the temple (perhaps justified by appeals to ‘diversity’ and ‘mutual flourishing’?), but then as the movement grows they respond with attempts to contain and intimidate, Acts 4:17-18. This begins to have an effect: we see in 5:13 that new believers are afraid to be seen with the apostles in central Jerusalem. But the healings and preaching continue, so the persecution intensifies, culminating with the death of Stephen in chapter 7, and the scattering of believers which follows.

The seeds of this inevitable separation of the new Jesus movement from the old life-restricting religious structures can be seen in the symbolism of the events around the healing of the lame man. Peter and John are on their way to pray at the temple along with many others. It’s the place which, up till now, has been seen as the locus of God’s presence. The lame man is begging at the gate, hoping for money, which he knows people will have, because that is what religion has become for many of them: going to a building, giving some money to sustain the religious structure, giving to the poor. The apostles are not looking to overthrow the system or create a parallel one, but as they go to the temple they know the one to whom they are praying; they have met his Son and are filled with his Spirit.

As the man is healed, a crowd gathers around the word of Christ and people are converted, the locus of God’s presence and power has shifted from the temple and the religious institution, to the apostles and the new body of Christ – just as Jesus had promised. But the religious leaders still assume that they are the ones with the power, and the control of access to God, and they exercise it, persecuting the believers who in worldly terms, have neither money (“silver and gold have I none”), nor power.

This is the beginning of an irrevocable shift. Acts shows us how the new wine of the revolutionary message of Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, and the missionary energy of the Spirit working through faithful believers, will not be restricted by unfaithful religious structures, with their compromises with secular power and their suppression of the message that the only way of salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus. It takes forty years for the remnant of Jewish Christians to finally break free from their attachment to the temple and associated structures (during the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD) but in the meantime the Gospel has gone viral and global.

Is division among the people of God always bad? Was it wrong for the apostles to say to the religious authorities “we must obey God rather than men?” Was it wrong later for Paul to insist on conflict with the Judaisers, and for all the apostles to oppose what they saw as false teaching within the church? Not according to Acts and the epistles – it’s inevitable when the Gospel is at stake, and beneficial, in fact essential for mission.


We remember this as we celebrate the Reformation this year. And we remember it as new expressions of Anglicanism continue to develop over the next few weeks and months in Britain – ways of doing church which are thankful for the heritage of Anglican forms of worship, but which look back to the apostolic teachings and the original formularies of the Church, and outward to the global fellowship of those united in biblical faithfulness, rather than to human religious authorities which have departed from them.

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