READ : Acts 3:1-8
Today there are about two billion Christians worldwide, almost twice as many as any other faith. Yet when Christianity began, it was hard to imagine it could even survive, let alone succeed on such a scale.
Tne of the most amazing success stories in history is that of the early Christian church. When Jesus was crucified around 30 a.d. his followers consisted of 11 frightened men, plus a few dozen more hangers-on, mostly women. By the time the last of these original followers died near the end of the first century, there were churches established in every part of the known world. Christians were numerous enough for Roman writers and officials to regularly mention them and discuss ways of dealing with them. And a little more than two hundred years later the entire Roman empire was officially Christian.
You might think that evangelizing the world was easier for the first Christians than it is for us today, but in fact the opposite is true. There were huge obstacles lying in the path of the Christians who sought to reach the Roman world with the gospel. These first Christians were a tiny handful of men and women without distinction, education, influence, power or money. They were nobodies in their own country (see Acts 4:13), and their own country, Judea, was a second-rate, enemy-occupied province on the edge of the Roman empire. The early church possessed no mass media, no modern means of transportation and communication, no printed literature. The first Christians also had a serious image problem. To mainstream Jews, Jesus’ followers were an upstart cult of heretics and radicals. As they moved out into the wider, gentile world, Christians were viewed as atheistic, anti-social and morally depraved. Vicious false rumors about them were circulated, accusing them of unspeakable crimes like incest and cannibalism. And the message they proclaimed, a message of a crucified and risen Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, was offensive to everyone. To the Jews it was blasphemous; to the Romans, weak and contemptible; to the Greeks, mere foolishness.
Yet they succeeded. How? The key was the power of the Holy Spirit working through them. But on a human level, what made the difference was the fact that everyone, from the apostles to the humblest, unnamed believer, understood their primary calling in life to be that of telling others about Jesus Christ. And what the Holy Spirit used to expand the church, as we see over and over in the book of Acts, was the simple gospel – an extraordinary message on the lips of very ordinary people.
TROUBLE IN JERUSALEM
Peter and John had decided one day to go to the evening worship service at the Temple. On the way there, they got into trouble – not for doing wrong, but for doing good. As they were entering the temple gates, they saw a crippled beggar who asked them for alms. The man was over forty years old, and had been crippled since birth (Acts 4:22; 3:2). He was a hopeless case. He had never walked, and never would. He was also familiar to everyone from his daily routine of begging at one of the busiest corners in the city. But on that particular day a miracle occurred. Peter and John had no money to give the poor beggar; they had something better. They offered him the power that comes from God through the name of Jesus Christ. This man was healed as he trusted in Christ.
This quickly led to problems for Peter and John. A crowd of amazed onlookers soon gathered in the temple courts. Peter began to speak to them about Jesus of Nazareth, a man whose death they had approved not long before but whom God had raised from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection confirmed that he was God’s Messiah, the Christ, the Lord himself in human nature. As Peter spoke to the crowd, many believed. Luke, always the careful historian, reports that 5,000 more people became Christians that day, joining the 3,000 who had been converted earlier on the day of Pentecost.
The democratic ideals of freedom of speech and freedom of religion which today are considered normative are fragile. They’re only held by a minority of people. In most places and times throughout history, dissenting religious or political views are suppressed by the ruling classes. For someone to peacefully and publicly express his faith is not allowed by those who fear the free exchange of ideas. First-century Jerusalem was no exception. Such public and effective preaching as Peter’s could not help but stir up trouble with the authorities. After all, Peter was boldly declaring the truth about Jesus in the very same temple courts where Jesus himself had been teaching not long before, and where his condemnation of the chief priests, the scribes and the Pharisees had caused them to arrest and crucify him (see Matthew 21:45-46). Peter’s sermon on this particular occasion was very similar to what he had said on Pentecost. Its theme – in fact, the theme of all Peter’s recorded sermons in Acts – is summarized in this verse from Acts 3:15: “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” Now, not surprisingly, that message triggered the angry opposition of the temple authorities and especially the Sadducees (4:1-2). The Sadducees were the wealthy, priestly party in Jerusalem. They controlled the city under their Roman overlords, and so they favored the status quo. They opposed any movement that might upset their sense of order. The Sadducees also rejected the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead which the disciples were so vigorously proclaiming. So the temple guards quickly moved in to arrest Peter and John. They threw them into prison until a formal investigation could be conducted.
The next day the high priest Caiaphas, together with his father-in-law Annas, a former high priest, and other members of their party, met with the Sanhedrin, the high Jewish Council, to interrogate Peter and John. They questioned them about the healing of this crippled man, hoping to catch them in some illegal, magical or blasphemous activity (v. 7). But their chief concern was to silence them, either by threats or intimidation, to cut off their testimony to the risen Jesus Christ. Peter’s response was to preach again the same message once more, bearing faithful witness to the name of Jesus before this impressive, stern group of authorities (fulfilling one of Jesus’ prophecies; see Mark 13:9-11).
NO OTHER NAME
Several points are noteworthy about this last version of Peter’s basic sermon. First, his theme, as always, is Christ crucified and risen again (v. 10). The heart of all Christian witness is the rehearsal of these basic gospel events plus an explanation of their saving significance. So it’s all about these things:
- the cross and its atonement for sin,
- salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone,
- the resurrection as God’s vindication of Jesus and the crowning glory that confirms his divine identity and saving work,
- the absolute need for a personal response of believing obedience from everyone who hears the message.
So that’s the basic gospel message. Peter proclaimed it over and over because he himself had experienced it. He had seen all of those historic events first-hand, and so he could testify to the truth of the gospel in a way that no non-eyewitness ever could. But Peter also had embraced the truth of the gospel for himself. He had surrendered his own life to it. The gospel is “Christ for us” – the objective facts of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus in our place and on our behalf. But the gospel is also “Christ in us” – the reality of the indwelling presence and power of the Lord Jesus through the Holy Spirit, as he comes to live in those who believe in him and live out his life in them. Their relationship with him becomes vital and personal.
Another point to observe in Peter’s message is his recourse once again to the testimony of scripture. He quotes in his message before the Sanhedrin from Psalm 118:22, calling Jesus “the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone”- one of the New Testament’s favorite verses. Jesus also quoted it and applied it to himself (Matthew 21:42). Peter repeats it again in his first letter (1 Peter 2:7). In Psalm 118 the psalmist predicts that God’s servant will be rejected by the leaders, but will be raised to the chief place by God himself. The first Christians all believed that the Bible, which for them meant the Old Testament, was filled with Christ. It was a book all about him. They delighted in quoting from it, drawing their preaching texts from it. So the Christian message is really a biblical message. Its power comes from God’s Word, not our words. The Bible is the great source-book for preaching Christ.
And a final point, Peter’s message has salvation as its focus and its end. His powerful testimony before these Jewish authorities climaxes with this ringing affirmation: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” That’s as bold an assertion of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as can be made.
- Jesus is unique. He’s the only savior because his nature is unique. He alone is Lord and God, as his disciple Thomas exclaimed when he first saw the risen Jesus for himself. Christ alone is the God-man, the God who took on human nature and became a man, God “in the flesh.”
- Christ is the only savior because his actions are unique. No one else lived a perfect, sinless life. No one else died to pay the penalty of human sin. No one else was ever raised from death to a new life, the life of the world to come. No one else has been exalted to the right hand of God, the place of highest honor and power. No one else is coming again to judge the living and the dead at the end of the world.
- And Christ is the only savior because his authority is unique. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he said. “So go and make disciples for me in every nation. You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” That is why Peter and John and every other true follower of Jesus, right down to our time, has pointed people throughout the world to Jesus Christ as the world’s one Savior. It’s what Christ told us to do. And if human rulers or powers forbid it, Peter’s response to his critics is appropriate still: “Judge for yourselves. Which is right from God’s point of view? Should we obey you? Or God?” (Acts 4:19).
To say with Peter and the first Christians that there is no other name than Jesus by which we must be saved raises both a challenge and a claim. It’s a challenge for you to respond to the gospel message with faith. There is no other means of salvation. Everyone needs to be saved. And it’s also as clear a claim as could be possibly made for the exclusiveness of Christ, the world’s only Savior. You can only be saved by putting your trust in him.
Now that may be offensive, I realize, to many people. These claims were equally offensive in the time of Peter and John – and every time from then till now. People don’t like to hear that they must be saved, that they’re lost and alienated from the love of God and from the life of God unless they believe in Christ. People don’t like to think that Jesus is the only name that saves, that no other religion under heaven, no moral system, no good intention, no human effort, is sufficient to atone for sin and bring forgiveness. It is Christ or nothing!
That may be offensive and seem intolerant. We certainly must take care not to be offensive in the way we proclaim it – but this is the gospel. It is good news for everyone. That’s what the apostles thought. What do you think?