representation in stained glass of apostles Peter and Paul

Studying Acts 3 1-11

We’re studying Acts 3:1-11 this week – the story of Peter, in the company of his friend John, healing a lame beggar at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple in Jerusalem. [That is, people in general who use the Uniform Series lessons are. But our class meets on Wednesday evenings – note some questions on the text here – so we specifically are on to Acts 9 now.] Here [belatedly] are my notes on the text [anyway]:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is our third of five lessons in the book of Acts. The book is part II of the larger work Luke-Acts, and sharing many of the characteristics of the gospel of Luke: sophisticated Greek style; emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit; prominent, emphatic concern with Gentiles, and acceptance of Gentiles; heightened awareness and descriptions of organizations and administration (who’s responsible for what, how decisions get made, names and roles of government officials, etc.).

We are still in the opening frames of the book, and of the narrative. Jesus has ascended to heaven. The Holy Spirit has filled the small community that waited in Jerusalem for that event, in a very dramatic way. Peter has preached a sermon interpreting that event as a fulfillment of Scriptural prophecy. The community is already growing rapidly. That’s what’s happened so far.

This healing and its aftermath is going to spur that community growth even more. It’s also going to bring Peter and John to the annoyed attention of the mainline Jewish leadership – the priests, the Temple authorities and the conservative teachers, the Sadducees. This will be the Apostle’s own first run-in with these mainline leaders, but not their last.

After this comes the rest of the story: further development of the community, the introduction of Saul, also to be known as Paul, and then the transition to Paul’s story, from Damascus to Antioch and then back and forth to various places around the Mediterranean until he finally after numerous missionary adventures and misadventures ends up in Rome.   

The sermon Peter preaches to the assembled crowd after this healing is a lectionary reading for the Third Sunday of Easter (B), but the healing story itself is one of those stories we wouldn’t know was in the Bible if all we knew were the lectionary. We won’t have heard it in church. Unless whoever preaches on Acts 3:12-19 sees fit to include it for context. But then – nobody wouldn’t do that, would they??

CLOSER READING: Verse 1 reminds us that these early Christians are good Jews. The story begins with Peter and John heading up to the Temple at “the hour of prayer,” “the ninth” – the ninth hour, that is, by Jewish timekeeping, or roughly our 3:00 p.m. This would be the preferred time for afternoon prayer, assuming prayer practices bore any resemblance to contemporary rabbinic practice. (A little more on calculating hours, in today’s world.) This tells us Peter and John are good, pious, observant Jews of their time.

At the same time – as if by appointment – some people (they) are carrying a man lame from birth (literally, “from his mother’s womb”) to the “gate of the temple called Beautiful”. Again, this seems to be their routine.

The Greek word translated “Beautiful” is, most literally, “seasonable, timely.” It seems to mean “beautiful” by extension – when fruit is in season, it’s beautiful, for instance.

Some emphasis is being placed on timing right here at the beginning of the story. The Apostles and the man are not really meeting here by accident. The coordinating factors are relevant, too: prayer, which fulfills a divine command; asking for alms, which also takes advantage of people’s desire to fulfill divine commandments. Showing up at the Temple at a time when observant people will be there to fulfill the commandment to pray WOULD be a good time to ask for tzedakah, too. The lame man has good marketing instincts.

In v3, the lame man sights Peter and John, and asks for alms, using a verb that incorporates a Greek root that means “to have, to hold”. Which seems significant, mainly because this root is going to show up again in v5 when the man begins to pay attention to Peter and John. The same root will then really jump out in v6 when Peter says “What I HAVE this to you I give …” That is, there’s a little crescendo of this word right there, that emphasizes the man’s need to have, and Peter’s having, and his willingness to give what he has.

The exchange of eye contact in vv4-5 also seems vital. Peter and John look intently at (or, into) the man; and ask him to look at us (or, into us). We don’t know exactly why … except that again, there’s an emphasis on meeting, encounter, appointment, in this story.

Peter uses that imperative verb form – walkin the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. We might recall that the Apostles have some prior experience healing the sick, earlier in the gospels, when they were sent out by Jesus to do just that.

Luke points out rather specifically that the man’s feet and ankles were strengthened instantly. This allows him to spring forth, stand, walk, leap – and while he’s at it, praise God. Several readers point out that this could be a reference to Isaiah 35:6 (the lame man will leap like a deer). Or Isaiah 43:19 (God’s “new thing” “springs forth”)? Or Malachi 4:2 [] (those who revere God’s name will see the sun of righteousness rise with healing in his wings, and go out leaping like calves …)? Maybe all of the above.

It seems noteworthy that the man goes in to the Temple together with Peter and John – and that later, in v10, this event, this thing that “happened to him”, is labeled with a word that connotes “going along together,” “walking together”. Nudging us to notice both the walking the man can now do, and the community he’s gained with the Apostles.

The man clearly doesn’t want to be parted from them, because in v11 he is holding fast or seizing them pretty energetically.

Whether the gathering inside the Temple, at “Solomon’s Portico”, ought to remind us that “something greater than Solomon is here” (Luke 11:31, also Matthew 12:42) … I personally suspect. Peter will certainly sound like he’s gotten talking points from the Queen of the South in his sermon in vv12-19. When he rises up and denounces the people for not having taken better care of Jesus Christ of Nazareth when they had the chance, and calls on them to repent.

painting of the healing at the Beautiful Gate

Images: “Stained Glass St Blaise Church Dubrovnik” (cropped), Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Saints Peter and John healing at the Beautiful Gate,” See page for author, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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