Acts 3 Bible Commentary

McGarvey and Pendleton

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Verses 1-10.   Thus far, the labors of the apostles had met with uninterrupted and most astonishing success. Luke is now about to introduce us to a series of conflicts, in which success and temporary defeat alternate in the history of the Jerusalem church.

(1) "Now Peter and John were going up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. (2) And a certain man, lame from his birth, was carried thither, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms of those entering into the temple: (3) who, seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, asked alms. (4) And Peter, earnestly looking on him, with John, said, Look on us. (5) And he gave heed to them, expecting to receive something from them. (6) But Peter said, Silver and gold I have not; but what I have, this I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk. (7) And seizing him by the right hand, he lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankles received strength; (8) and leaping forth, he stood and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God. (9) And all the people saw him walking and praising God, (10) and recognized him, that it was he who had sat for alms at the Beautiful gate of the temple. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at that which had happened unto him."

This is by no means the first miracle which had been wrought by the apostles since the day of Pentecost; for we have seen, in chapter ii: 43, that many signs and wonders had been wrought, by which the people were filled with awe. But the circumstances attending this miracle were calculated to awaken, as it did, an unusual excitement. The Beautiful gate of the temple, so called because of its magnificent folding doors, fifty feet high and forty feet wide, covered with gold and Corinthian brass, was the favorite pass-way into the temple. The subject of this cure, being laid every day at this gate to beg, was well known to all who frequented the temple. From the natural curiosity of the benevolent in reference to the afflictions of those to whom they minister, it was probably known to all that he had been a cripple from his birth. Besides this, the time of the cure was when a multitude of pious people were entering the temple for evening prayer; and their attention was unexpectedly arrested by the leaping and shouting of the man who was healed. As they witnessed his ecstasy and saw him clinging to Peter and John, no one asked the meaning of the scene, for all saw at once that the cripple had been healed by the apostles, and they stood gazing in amazement upon Peter and John.

Verses 11-15.   The apostles took a position in one of the open colonnades which faced the inner side of the temple wall, called Solomon's Portico. (11) "And while the lame man who was healed was holding fast Peter and John, all the people ran together to them on the portico called Solomon's, greatly wondering." The admiration of the multitude was directed toward Peter and John; and was understood by Peter to indicate that they attributed the cure rather to the singular holiness of himself and John, than to the power of their master. He determined to take advantage of the circumstances, by turning their excited thoughts into the proper channel. (12) "Then Peter, seeing this, answered to the people, Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you look earnestly on us, as though by our own power or piety we have caused this man to walk? (13) The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his son Jesus, whom ye delivered up, and rejected in the presence of Pilate, when he had determined to let him go. (14) But you rejected the holy and just, and desired a murderer to be granted to you; (15) and you killed the author of life, whom God has raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses."

In this passage the apostle makes the same statement, in substance, with which he introduced the main theme of his former discourse. The antithetical style adopted on this occasion gave to it a force scarcely excelled by his former discourse, while it was even more penetrating to the consciences of his hearers. The fact that the God of their fathers had glorified Jesus, is contrasted with the fact that they had delivered him up to die; their refusal to let him be released, with the cruel Pilate's determination to let him go; their rejection of one holy and just, with their demand that a murder should be released to them; and their murder of him, with his authorship of all life. These four points of antithesis form the four steps of a grand climax. Whom the God of our fathers glorified, you have delivered up to die. Your criminality is heightened by the fact, that when even a heathen judge declared him innocent, and desired to release him to you, you rejected him. Even this does not express the enormity of your guilt, for you yourselves knew him whom you rejected to be holy and just, and preferred the release of one whom you knew to be a murderer. But above all, in murdering him, you put to death the author of life, who has arisen from the dead. We might challenge the pages of all the classics for a climax more thrilling in its effect upon the audience, or for a happier combination of climax and antithesis. The effect upon the multitude was overwhelming.{1} The facts declared were undeniable, except the resurrection, and of this the men who had just healed the cripple were the witnesses.

Verse 16.   But Peter does not stop short with this climax, terminating in the resurrection from the dead. He proceeds to prove his present power and glory by the facts which were then filling them with amazement. (16) "And his name, through faith in his name, has made this man strong, whom ye see and know. Even the faith which is through him, has given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all." In this verse, there is one of those repetitions common with extemporaneous speakers, and designed to express more guardedly a thought already uttered. Perhaps the formula employed by Peter in the act of healing, "In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk," suggested to him the phraseology, "his name, through faith in his name, has made this man strong." But lest the superstitious audience might imagine that there was some charm in the mere name of Jesus, a mistake which was afterwards made by certain Jews in Ephesus,{2} he adds, "The faith which is through him has given him this perfect soundness." The faith was not that of the cripple; for it is clear, from the description, that he had no faith. When Peter said to him, "Look on us," the man looked up, expecting to receive alms. And even when Peter told him, in the name of Jesus, to rise up and walk, he did not attempt to move till Peter "took him by the right hand, and lifted him up." He exhibited no faith, either in Jesus, or in Peter's healing power, till after he found himself able to stand and walk. We must locate the faith, therefore, in the apostles; and in this we are sustained by the fact that the exercise of miraculous power, by those in possession of spiritual gifts, was always dependent upon their faith; Peter was empowered to walk upon water; but, when his faith wavered, he began to sink, and Jesus said, "O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?" Nine of the apostles, once, having failed to cast out a demon, asked Jesus, "Why could we not cast him out?" He replied, "Because of your unbelief."{3} In answer to their prayers, also, many miracles were wrought, but it was only "the prayer of faith" which could heal the sick.{4}

It must be here observed that faith was necessary to the exercise of spiritual gifts, already imparted, and that no faith, however strong, ever enabled the uninspired to work miracles. The notion, therefore, which has existed in some minds, from time to time, ever since the apostolic period, that if our faith were strong enough, we, too, could work miracles, has as little foundation in scripture as it has in experiment.

Verses 17, 18.   At this point in the discourse there is a marked change in Peter's tone and manner, which we can attribute to nothing else than some visible indication of the intense pain produced by what he had already said. He had made a most terrific onslaught upon them, and exposed their criminality in unsparing terms; but now, induced by some perceptible change in their countenances, he softens his style, and extenuates their fault. (17) "And now, brethren, I know that you did it in ignorance, as did also your rulers. (18) But those things which God had before announced through the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath thus fulfilled." That they acted in ignorance of the real character of Jesus was an extenuation of their crime, but it did not render them innocent; for the preceding remarks were intended to convict them of crime, and in his preceding discourse he charged that with wicked hands they had crucified and slain him. Peter assumes, what none of them could honestly deny, that it was by wicked motives they were impelled to the fatal deed.

In connection, with this assertion of their criminality, he states another fact hard to be reconciled with it in the philosophy of man, that, in the commission of this crime, God was fulfilling what he had declared through his prophets should be done. Once before, in speaking of this same event, Peter had brought these two apparently conflicting facts, the sovereignty of God, and the free agency of man, into juxtaposition, when he said, "Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken, and with wicked hands have crucified and slain." That God had predetermined the death of Jesus can not be denied without contradicting both the prophets and the apostles; and that they acted wickedly in doing what God had determined should be done, Peter affirms, and three thousand of them on Pentecost, with many more on this occasion, admitted it. If any man can frame a theory by which to philosophically reconcile these two facts, we will assent to it, if we can understand it; but unless both facts, unaltered have a place in the theory, we must reject it. We reject every man who denies either of the facts; but while he admits them both, we will not dispute with him about the theory upon which he attempts to reconcile them. This much, fidelity to the word of God on the one hand, and brotherly kindness on the other hand, demand of us. In the mean time, it is better to follow Peter's example. He lays the two facts side by side, appealing to the prophets for the proof of one, and to the consciences of men for the proof of the other, and there he leaves them, seeming not to realize that he had involved himself in the slightest difficulty. It is folly to attempt to climb where we are certain of a fall.

Verses 19-21.   Having now fully demonstrated the Messiahship of Jesus, and exposed the criminality of those of who had condemned him, the apostle next presents to his hearers the conditions of pardon. (19) "Repent, therefore, and turn, that your sins may be blotted out, and that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, (20) and he may send Jesus Christ, who has before preached to you, (21) whom heaven must retain{5} until the time of the restoration of all things which God has spoken, through the mouth of all his holy prophets, since the world began."

Here, as in his former statement of the conditions of pardon, the apostle makes no mention of faith. But, having labored, from the beginning of his discourse, to convince his hearers, they necessarily understood that his command, based as it was, upon what he had said, implied the assumption that they believed it. A command based upon an argument, or upon testimony, always implies the sufficiency of the proof, and assume that the hearer is convinced. Moreover, Peter knew very well that none would repent at his command who did not believe what he had said; hence, in every view of the case, he proceeded, naturally and safely, in omitting mention of faith.

In the command, "Repent and turn," the word "turn" expresses something to be done subsequent to repentance. There is no way to avoid this conclusion, unless we suppose that turn is equivalent to repent; but this is inadmissible, because there could be no propriety in adding the command turn, if what it means had been already expressed in the command repent. We may observe, that the term reform, which some critics would employ instead of repent, would involve the passage in a repetition not less objectionable. To reform and to turn to the Lord are equivalent expressions, hence it would be a useless repetition to command men, Reform, and turn.

In order to a proper understanding of this passage, it is necessary to determine the exact scriptural import of the term repent. The most popular conception of its meaning is "godly sorrow for sin." But, according to Paul, "godly sorrow works repentance in order to salvation."{6} Instead of being identical with repentance, therefore, it is the immediate case which leads to repentance. Paul says to the Corinthians, in the same connection, "Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that you sorrowed to repentance." This remark shows that it is sorrow which brings men to repentance, is also implies that there may be sorrow for sin without repentance. That there is a distinction between these two states of mind, and that sorrow for sin may exist without repentance, is also implied in commanding those on Pentecost who were already pierced to the heart, to repent. It is also evident from the case of Judas, who experienced the most intense sorrow for sin, but was not brought to repentance. His feeling is expressed by a different term in the original, which is never used to express the change which the gospel requires, and is equivalent to regret, though sometimes, as in his case, it expresses the idea of remorse.

In thus tracing the distinction between "godly sorrow" and "repentance," we have ascertained the fact that repentance is produced by sorrow for sin, and this must constitute one element in the definition of the term. Whatever it is, it is produced by sorrow for sin. Is it not, then, reformation? Reformation is certainly produced by sorrow for sin; but, as we have already observed, turning, which is equivalent to reforming, is distinguished, in the text before us, from repenting. The same distinction is elsewhere apparent. John the Immerser, in requiring the people to "bring forth fruits meet for repentance," clearly distinguishes between repentance and those deeds of a reformed life which he styles fruits meet for repentance. With him, reformation is the fruit of repentance, not its equivalent. The distinction is that between fruit and the tree which bears it. When Jesus speaks of repenting seven times a day,{7} he certainly means something different from reformation; for that would require more time. Likewise, when Peter required those on Pentecost to repent and be immersed, if by the term repent he had meant reform, he would certainly have given them time to reform before they were immersed, instead of immersing them immediately. Finally, the original term is sometimes used in connection with such prepositions as are not suitable to the idea of reformation. As a general rule it is followed by apo, or ek, which are suitable to either idea; but in 2 Cor. xii: 21, it is followed by epi with the dative: "Many have not repented, epi, of the uncleanness, and fornication, and lasciviousness which they have committed." Now men do not reform of their evil deeds, neither will the preposition, in this case, bear a rendering which would suit the term reform.{8} Reform, then, does not express the same idea as repent, but, as we have seen above, reformation is the fruit or result of repentance.

Seeing now that repentance is produced by sorrow for sin, and results in reformation, we can have no further difficulty in ascertaining exactly what it is; for the only result of sorrow for sin which leads to reformation, is a change of the will in reference to sin. The etymological meaning of metanoia is a change of mind; but the particular element of the mind which undergoes this change is the will. Strictly defined, therefore, repentance is a change of the will, produced by sorrow for sin, and leading to reformation. If the change of will is not produced by sorrow for sin, it is not repentance, in the religious sense, though it may be metanoia, in the classic sense. Thus, Esau "found no place for metanoias, a change of mind, though he sought it carefully with tears."{9} Here the word designates a change in the mind of Isaac in reference to the blessing which he had already given to Jacob; but this change did not depend upon sorrow for sin, hence it was not repentance, and should not be so translated. Again, if the change of will, though produced by sorrow for sin, is one which does not lead to reformation, it is not repentance; for there was a change in the will of Judas, produced by sorrow for sin, yet Judas did not repent. The change in his case led to suicide, not to reformation; it is, therefore, not expressed by metanoeo, but by metamelomai. Our definition, therefore, is complete, without redundancy.{10}

We can now perceive, still more clearly than before, that in the command, "Repent and turn," the terms repent, and turn, express two distinct changes, which take place in the order of the words. Their relative meaning is well expressed by Dr. Bloomfield, who says that the former denotes "a change of mind," the latter "a change of conduct." Mr. Barnes also well and truly remarks: "This expression ('be converted,') conveys an idea not at all to be found in the original. It conveys the idea of passivity--BE converted, as if they were to yield to some foreign influence that they were now resisting. But the idea of being passive in this is not conveyed by the original word. The word properly means to turn--to return to a path from which one has gone astray; and then to turn away from sins, or to forsake them." That turn, rather than be converted, is the correct rendering of the term, is not disputed by any competent authority; we shall assume, therefore, that it is correct, and proceed to inquire what Peter intended to designate by this term.

As already observed, it designates a change in the conduct. A change of conduct, however, must, from the very necessity of the case, have a beginning; and that beginning consists in the first act of the better life. The command to turn is obeyed when this first act is performed. Previous to that, the man has not turned; subsequent to it he has turned; and the act itself is the turning act. If, in turning to the Lord, any one of a number of actions might be the first that the penitent performed, the command to turn would not specially designate any of these, but might be obeyed by the performance of either. But the fact is that one single act was uniformly enjoined upon the penitent, as the first overt act of obedience to Christ, and that was to be immersed. This Peter's present hearers understood. They had heard him say to parties like themselves, "Repent and be immersed;" and the first act they saw performed by those who signified their repentance, was to be immersed. When, now, he commands them to repent and turn, they could but understand that they were to turn as their predecessors had done, by being immersed. The commands turn, and be immersed, are equivalent, not because the words have the same meaning, but because the command, "Turn to the Lord" was uniformly obeyed by the specific act of being immersed. Previous to immersion, men repented, but did not turn; after immersion, they had turned, and immersion was the turning act.

We may reach the same conclusion by another course of reasoning. The command Turn occupies the same position between repentance and the remission of sins, in this discourse, that the command Be immersed had occupied in Peter's former discourse. He then said, "Repent and be immersed for the remission of sins;" now he says, "Repent and turn that your sins may be blotted out." Now, when his present hearers heard him command them to turn in order to the same blessing for which he had formerly commanded them to be immersed, they could but understand that the generic word turn was used with specific reference to immersion, and the the substitution is founded on the fact that a penitent sinner turns to God by being immersed.

This interpretation was first advanced, in modern times, by Alexander Campbell, about thirty years ago, and it excited against him then an opposition which still rages. The real ground of this opposition is not the interpretation itself, but a perversion of it. The word conversion being used in popular terminology in the sense of a change of heart, when Mr. Campbell announced that the word incorrectly rendered in this passage, be converted, means to turn to the Lord by immersion, the conclusion was seized by his opponents that he rejected all change of heart, and substituted immersion in its stead. He has reiterated, again and again, the sense in which he employed the term convert, and that the heart must be changed by faith and repentance previous to the conversion or turning here commanded by Peter; yet those who are determined upon doing him injustice still keep up the wicked and senseless clamor of thirty years ago. The odium theologicum, like the scent of musk, is not soon nor easily dissipated. There are always those to whose nostrils the odor is grateful.

There are several facts connected with the use of the original term, epistrepho, in the New Testament, worthy of notice. It occurs thirty-nine times, in eighteen of which it is used for the mere physical act of turning or returning. Nineteen times it expresses a change from evil to good, and twice{11} from good to evil. The term convert, therefore, were retained as the rendering, a man could, in the scriptural sense, be converted to Satan as well as to God. But be converted can never truly represent the original, though it is so rendered six times in the common version. The original is invariably in the active voice, and it is making a false and pernicious impression on the English reader to render it by the passive voice. If we render it truthfully by the term convert, we would have such readings as these: "Repent and convert;" "lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and should convert, and I should heal them," &c. In a correct version of the New Testament, the expression be converted could not possibly occur; for there is nothing in the original to justify it.

Not less worthy of observation is the fact, that while the change called conversion is popularly attributed to a divine power, as the only power capable of effecting it, and it is considered scarcely less than blasphemy to speak of a man converting another, or converting himself, yet the original word never does refer either to God, or Christ, or the Holy Spirit, as its agent. On the contrary, in five of its nineteen occurrences in the sense of a change from evil to good, it is employed of a human agent, as of John the Immerser, Paul, or some brother in the Church;{12} and in the remaining fourteen instances, the agent is the person who is the subject of the change. Thus, men may be properly said to turn their fellows, yet the subjects of this act are never said to be turned, but to turn to the Lord. The term invariably expresses something that the sinner is to do. These observations show how immeasurably the term convert has departed, in popular usage, from the sense of the original which it so falsely represents, and how imperious the necessity for displacing it from our English Bibles. The word turn corresponds to the original in meaning, in usage, in inflections, and translates it unambiguously in every instance.{13}

Peter commands his hearers to repent and turn, in order to three distinct objects: first, "That your sins may be blotted out;" second, "That seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord;" third, "That he may send Jesus Christ who was before preached to you." It is supposed, by the commentators generally, that the last two events are contemplated by Peter as cotemporaneous, so that the "seasons of refreshing" spoken of are those which will take place at the second coming of Christ. That there will be seasons of refreshing then, is true; but there are others more immediately dependent upon the obedience here enjoined by Peter, to which the reference is more natural. The pardon of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, which were immediately consequent upon repentance and immersion, certainly bring "seasons of refreshing," which might well be made the subject of promise to hearers supposed to be trembling with guilty apprehension. The reference of these words is, doubtless, to the gift of the Spirit; for they occupy the same place here that the gift of the Spirit did in the former discourse. Then, after repentance, immersion, and the remission of sins, came the promise of the Holy Spirit; now, after the same three, somewhat differently expressed--i. e., repentance, turning to the Lord, and blotting out of sins--comes the promise of "seasons of refreshing from the presence of the Lord." They are, then, the fresh and cheering enjoyments of him whose sins are forgiven, and who is taught to believe that the presence of the approving Spirit of God is with him.

The third promise, that God would send Jesus Christ, who was before preached to them, was dependent upon their obedience, only in so far as they would thus contribute to the object for which he will come, to raise from the dead, and receive into glory, all who are his. It is qualified by the remark, "whom heaven must retain until the times of the restoration of all things of which God has spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began." It is difficult to determine the exact force of the term restoration in this connection. It is commonly referred to a state of primeval order, purity, and happiness, which, it is supposed, will exist just previous to the second coming of Christ.{14} But the apostle speaks of a restoration of all things of which God has spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets. Now, there are many things spoken of by the prophets beside those which refer to the final triumphs of the truth, and all these are included in the expression. Some of these things will not consist, individually considered, in restoration, but in destruction. Still, the prevailing object of all the things of which the prophets have spoken, even the destruction of wicked nations and apostate Churches, is to finally restore that moral saw which God originally exercised over the whole earth. It is doubtless this thought which suggested the term restoration, though reference is had to the fulfillment of all the prophesies which are to be fulfilled on earth. Not till all are fulfilled will Christ come again.

Verses 22, 23.   For the twofold purpose of giving confirmation to the claims of Jesus, and warning his hearers as to the consequences of rejecting him, the apostle next introduces a well-known prophesy of Moses.{15} (22) "For Moses, indeed, said to the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up for you, from among your brethren, like me: him shall ye hear in all things, whatever he shall say to you. (23) And it shall come to pass that every soul who will not hear that prophet shall be destroyed from among the people." Whether Peter was right in applying this prophesy to Christ depends upon the likeness between him and Moses. This likeness may be traced in many subordinate incidents of his history, but lies chiefly in that which distinguishes both Moses and Christ from all other prophets. Moses as a deliverer of his people, and an original lawgiver. No prophet had been like him in these two particulars. The chief mission of the other prophets, so far as their cotemporaries were concerned, was to enforce the law of Moses. But Christ had now come, speaking by his our authority, offering a more glorious deliverance to the people than that from Egypt, and issuing new laws for the government of men. This proved that he, and he alone, was the prophet spoken of by Moses, and Peter's hearers now perceive that the authority of Moses himself binds them to the authority of Jesus, and that they must hear him, on the penalty of destruction if they refuse.

Verse 24.   Not content with bringing to bear the testimony of Moses, Peter adds to it the combined voices of all the prophets: (24) "And, indeed, all the prophets, from Samuel, and those following in order, as many as have spoken, have also foretold these days." This declaration is to be understood only of those prophets whose predictions are recorded in the Old Testament, for to those alone could Peter appeal in proof of his proposition. It was conceded by the Jews, that all the prophets had spoken of the days of the Messiah, and it was already proved, by Peter's preceding remarks, that Jesus was the Messiah; hence the argument is now complete.

Verses 25, 26.   Having completed his argument, in which the Messiahship of Jesus was demonstrated by the miraculous cure they had witnessed, and by the testimony of all the prophets, from Moses and Samuel down to Malachi, Peter next makes a powerful appeal to his hearers, based upon their veneration for the fathers of their nation, and for the covenant which God had made with them. (25) "You are the sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the kingdoms of the earth be blessed. (26) Unto you first, God, having raised up his son Jesus, has sent him to bless you, in turning away each one of you from his iniquities." This was a tender appeal to their national sympathies, made more effective by the statement that to them first because of their relation to the prophets and to Abraham, God had sent his risen Son to bless them, before visiting the rest of the world.

The use here made of the promise to Abraham shows the true interpretation of it. It is to be fulfilled, according to Peter, in turning living men away from their iniquities. Those only, therefore, who, under the influence of the gospel, turn away from their iniquities, can lay claim to the blessings contemplated in this promise. That all the kindreds of the earth were to be blessed does not affect this conclusion, except to extend its application to those of all nations who should, at any period of time, turn from their iniquities. The Universalian view of this promise is contradicted by all the apostolic comments upon it; for they all unite in denying the blessing to any but those who in this life believe and turn to the Lord.{16}

      {1} See below, on verse 17.
      {2} Acts xix: 13.
      {3} Matt. xvii: 19, 20.
      {4} James v: 15.
      {5} Receive (common version) is the literal meaning of the original dekasthai, but it is certainly used here in the sense of retain. Heaven had already received him; it was yet to retain him.
      {6} 2 Cor. vii: 10.
      {7} Luke xvii: 4.
      {8} For the suggestion of this criticism, I am indebted to my friend and brother, H. T. Anderson.
      {9} Heb. xii: 17.
      {10} In perfecting this definition, I am indebted to Prof. W. K. Pendleton, of Bethany College, for valuable suggestions.
      {11} Gal. iv: 9; 2 Peter ii: 21.
      {12} Luke i: 16, 17; Acts xxvi: 18; James v: 19, 20.
      {13} It is gratifying to observe that the incipient version of the American Bible Union corresponds to the views here expressed.
      {14} Hackett.
      {15} Deut. xviii: 15-19.
      {16} See Gal. iii: 7-9, et al.)