The Other Side of Signs and Wonders
The healing of the lame person in Acts 3 often becomes somewhat of a mantra for Pentecostals and charismatics, especially regarding Peter’s statement: “We have no money but we give you what we have.” Several problems attend well-meaning believers in circumstances like Acts 3. (1) The account becomes justification for having no financial resources or for not bringing to bear financial resources on a physical or social problem this miracle represents. Or, (2) this miracle becomes a rhetorical device (the setting of a persuasive sermon) attempting to encourage saints to believe for signs and wonders.
Contemporary circumstances that provide opportunity to replicate the Acts 3 miracle do not always generate the same result. Truth be known, the results are rarely the same. On the other hand, non-Pentecostals skip its deeper significance as well by either ignoring its intent or spiritualizing the account.
All of us belong in the same camp: We want to do what God wants, but we find ourselves falling short in light of expectations of this passage. Is there a lesson in this miracle for us? I suggest there is. The purpose of this article is to take a fresh look at the miracle in Acts 3:1–11 and suggest it is indeed an example we are to follow for all times.
The Literary, Historical, and Social Backgrounds
How would the recipients of Luke-Acts have understood this healing account?
Consider the following observations about the literary structure of this passage. We need to see the way Luke, under the inspiration of the Spirit, structured Luke and Acts1 to understand how this story fits into Luke’s scheme. Luke’s structuring of Acts, especially for our text, requires the interpreter to pay attention to the narrative flow for each narrative unit leading up to Acts 3.
This healing of the lame person occurs just after the coming of the Spirit in chapter 2 and flows from the results of that coming. Acts 1 bridges the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts and serves as an introduction to Acts.
Acts 2 is the paradigmatic episode supplying the structural foundation for the mission of God in Acts. This chapter is significant because it tells of the completion of Jesus’ ministry relative to the arrival of the new covenant — especially in highlighting the arrival of the Spirit — the final and key component for God’s work in the world. The Spirit’s coming signals that the last days have arrived and believers must proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Acts 2 gives the account of the coming of the Spirit in fullness — Luke’s terminology (Acts 2:4). Luke’s Gospel provides an account of God’s work in Christ, His Son, the promised Messiah. The work of Jesus the Messiah brings to fruition the promised second covenant — based on God’s promise to Abraham — that his prodigy would bless all the nations. A major part of this covenant pertains to the presence and work of the Spirit. Ezekiel 36:24–27 makes this plain (see also Jeremiah 31:31–34). But the Spirit had not come yet, even though Jesus’ work was almost finished. It was not completed until He ascended to the Father’s right hand, on the throne, from which position of authority He sent the Spirit. This explains the coming of the Spirit in Acts 2 — the Spirit came because Jesus finished His work and then gave the Spirit in His fullness. This is the answer that Peter’s sermon provides.
The Spirit came in His fullness because Jesus had finished His work and was starting His eschatological global mission. This is the function of Acts 2 — Jesus’ work is finished, the new covenant is fully in place, and Jesus, as Lord, sends His Spirit to empower His apostles to bring the gospel to all nations and plant healthy congregations. This is the strong missiological thrust of Luke/Acts, and Luke bases it on God’s promise to Abraham. This is the centerpiece of the new covenant.2
Most of the activity of Acts 2 occurs on Pentecost (verses 1–41). In verses 37–41, Luke summarizes what had happened on that day. Verses 43–47 summarize what happened within the next few days. Notice the time perspectives in these two paragraphs: in 2:41, Luke has “on that day” (en th hmera ekeinh), with emphasis on “that day.” It notes that the writer looked back on that day with special significance. But in the next paragraph Luke simply used general time references to connect further events, without specific description, in the following days to the Day of Pentecost — verses 46,47, “daily” (kaq hmeran). These happenings were marvelous and miraculous, but they emphasized the results of God’s activity through the hands of His Spirit-empowered apostles.
It is important to note that Acts 3:1 begins with such distinction of matters and people. Flowing from the summaries of chapter 2 about the beginning of the new age of the new covenant, chapter 3 serves as a distinct model for ministry in this new eschatological age of Jesus and the Spirit. Luke slows down and blows up a picture of one of these wonderful incidents to begin to show3 how believers should go about doing ministry in this new time. Because it is the first descriptive incident in the scheme of Acts following the epochal coming of the Spirit, it becomes typical; that is, it provides a model indicating the nature of new covenant ministry — the age of Jesus and the Spirit. From this account we learn what God deems important.
The Historical Diaspora
It is also important to look at the historical environment of Acts 3. Of particular note are the diasporas (dispersions) of the Israelites in the Old Testament. Diaspora is the English word for a somewhat violent method of judgment God used. The word diaspora describes ancient political and warfare techniques wherein the conquering king took the conquered peoples away from their homeland to prevent any further trouble, among other ways of subjugation. The first diaspora occurred when God judged the northern tribes, commonly referred to as Israel, for her gross and continued sin of idolatry. God used the Assyrians to conquer and take captives back to their homeland. Later, several diasporas occurred when the Babylonians conquered the southern tribes, known as Judah. The last drew to a head in the fall of Jerusalem in 587/86 B.C.
The Old Testament prophets reflect God’s anguish for His sinning people and for their continued waywardness. Isaiah, especially, preaches against Israel’s idolatry and other sin, but promises a time when God would come again and lead them out of the wilderness. They would prepare a way for Him in the desert. Isaiah 40 suggests this would be a lengthy time (i.e., “they that wait upon the Lord [for his deliverance from the dispersion]”). Chapter 40 onward speaks of this time in terms of a new exodus, a new creation. Language that writers used to describe the first exodus becomes the language for the “new” exodus, a time of God’s salvation.
New Covenant, Signs, and Wonders
Not only does Isaiah speak of the new exodus, the model of eschatological salvation, he speaks of a new covenant that, as an everlasting covenant, anchors and guides this new salvation. Jeremiah and Ezekiel explicitly join in the preaching against the sins of Israel and Judah but enlarge upon this new salvation and new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31ff.; Ezekiel 37:26,27), and the new exodus as salvation. While the new covenant sustains God’s nature and faithfulness from the old covenants, new and significant additions pertain to the atoning activity of Jesus and of the coming of the Spirit to save and empower people to serve in God’s mission in the world. Isaiah particularly emphasizes this, in addition to bringing salvation to the Jewish people, a light would shine to the Gentiles — God’s mission would include them — and they would dwell together as redeemed Jews and Gentiles. Joel 2:28–32 carries this theme forward in new exodus imagery, especially in verse 30 where he uses first exodus language: “signs and wonders.” Although the word “signs” is missing in Joel, it is implied in its parallel structure and Peter adds “signs” when quoting Joel (Acts 2:19).4
“Signs and wonders,” based especially on the language of Exodus and Deuteronomy, becomes the biblical, technical term for God’s power in salvation in delivering people from the oppression of sin. It is always associated in Scripture in this way and becomes the term that associates God’s covenantal power with His miraculous activity of salvation and mission.
Malachi informs us that the new exodus had not yet happened, for the people in his time were still in great sin and, along with Isaiah 40, speaks of a new messenger of the covenant yet to come. John the Baptist, who refers to these verses in identifying himself and his mission, is the clue that this new exodus is at hand.5 Indeed, Jesus is the I Am of Isaiah who comes to rescue His people and shine a light to the Gentiles.6 He is the Good Shepherd who is come to gather His oppressed and alienated sheep. He does signs and wonders and makes atonement. He is the One who baptizes in the Spirit.
This is the scene of Acts 2 and our miracle in chapter 3. Acts 2:22–24 clearly refer to these activities. Verse 22 notes in particular that “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, signs and wonders, which God performed among you through him.”7 The miraculous (signs and wonders) in Acts 3 is what God does in mission. In fact, the new exodus theme shapes the entire Book of Acts — Luke purposefully framed the Book of Acts to show the outgrowth of the new covenant, new exodus, and God’s mission to the world.8
Lameness — the Focus of God’s Saving Activity
The matter of the lame man in Acts 3 is also significant. People often associate lameness with blindness to depict oppressed and marginalized people in need of God’s deliverance.9 Matthew 21:14 illustrates this: “The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.”10 But a host of other oppressive conditions clumped together with blindness and lameness depict people in dire circumstances awaiting God’s deliverance and missional power. In every case in the Gospels, people in these conditions received Jesus’ attention. Matthew 15:30 testifies: “Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them.”11 Jesus focused on people imprisoned in these illnesses, and Luke/Acts heightens in both literal and typological ways the need of God’s power in the church’s mission. In the primitive church (the apostolic period), the lame became types of marginalized people waiting for the gospel.12
Old Testament promises for this kind of activity abound and serve as directories for the future when God inaugurates His plan for the ages. Acts sets out God’s agenda for this activity. This activity is grounded in the Old Testament texts and promises.
Jesus himself understood His ministry (Luke 4:18,19) in terms of Isaiah 61:1,2 and 58:6 to be in the context of the new exodus. Luke, especially, provides the clearest picture of these connections. In Luke 4, at Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth, Luke provides a lengthy report of Jesus’ sermon at that place. Matthew and Mark leave out His sermon and the texts from Isaiah, and simply refer to His rejection.13 Luke emphasized that the Holy Spirit was upon Jesus: He was anointed to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners, bring sight to the blind, release the oppressed, perform signs and wonders as evidence that the Kingdom had come near, and that the new exodus had come. Isaiah 35:6 also appears to have been influential as well: “Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.”14 The Jews understood this text messianically, fulfilling the restoration of Israel in the new covenant, eschatological era. The lame man leapt with joy after he was healed in Acts 3.
“When the day of Pentecost had fully arrived,” (Acts 2:1, author’s paraphrase) points to the full arrival of God’s plan with the coming of the Spirit.15 This was the last of a number of combined, divine activities that culminated in the actualization of the plan. The healing of the lame person captured the essence of that plan in history — God’s attention to this lame person becomes a model for God’s invasion of oppressive and marginalized peoples and systems in history. “Lameness,” while describing in a literal way this person’s condition, becomes something much larger. It serves as a typological image of oppressed and marginalized peoples and people groups.
The social background pertains particularly to the recovery of societal information that anthropological insights provide. This kind of exploration helps recover the matrix of a literary text and contributes greatly to understanding its meaning. In the Bible, the original writers took for granted that their hearers/readers embraced the same social world as they and gave no explanation of their social matrix. It is therefore important for later readers to attempt to recover this background as much as possible, for it influenced the meaning of written texts, no less than the text at hand and the event in which this lame man was healed.
Culturally speaking, all ancient societies were kinship oriented. This means several things. Relationships shaped and controlled human social groups; they were the basis of all cultures. We call this kind of societal structure kinship. The term describes the basic idea in these relationships — that of blood or biological ties. While these societies held strongly to blood ties, they had a means by which outsiders could have the same kind of relationship. The instrument by which this was done was adoption. When they used this kind of action, they called the kinship relationship fictive. This is the way to understand our relationship to one another and to God as we are all brothers and sisters in His family, the Church.
The basic grouping was familial in that kinship pertains to biological connections. Nuclear families, extended families, and clans formed such kinship relations. While some differences existed among Greeks, Romans, and Jews, all groups had the same basic orientation — kinship. Furthermore, each person’s identity came from his or her own group — not from his/her own self. In such a case, feelings of self-worth and identity came from group affirmation, not from individual achievement.
Honor and Shame
Honor and shame govern all behaviors. The group expects each person to conform to the group’s laws, customs, and mores. In Jesus’ day, receiving positive recognition and affirmation from one’s group is receiving honor. Honor is a positive reinforcement of a group’s expectations. To receive negative input is shameful, a negative reinforcement. Since honor and shame are a matter of the particular group culture, everything transpires in the public sphere. All levels of society, especially the aristocrats (elite) who thought they were more desirable than any properties or money afforded, highly sought after honor.
People based a significant part of this honor/shame society on reciprocation between the higher and the lower classes. The middle class virtually did not exist. This was known as a patronage system. Along with the Roman emperor and his senate members, and a host of others with them including landowners across the empire, the aristocratic (elite) class (estimated to have been about 3 percent of the population) held all the power and wealth.
Though they had all the power, they depended on the lower classes to sustain their wealth, so they had to ensure their existence. They did this by doling out just enough for the lower classes — free laboring people, slaves, women, and merchants (on the top of the lower class) — to subsist. The upper class (elite) in this patronage system was the patrons; the lower class, who depended on them for their subsistence, was the clients. The aristocrats (elite) desired honor (reciprocated) and the clients were the ones who benefited from their patronage and gave (i.e., reciprocated) them honor in a public setting, such as at community celebrations and at hiring time in the marketplace (see the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20:1–15).
The wealthy built public buildings such as temples and synagogues (the Jewish wealthy in their own way were patrons (elite) like the Romans). They displayed their names in conspicuous places so people would continually attribute honor to them.
Everyone could see that this person was generous and thus afforded great honor. Thus, people called him a benefactor. Another person in this patronage system was the broker who mediated deals between a patron and a client. This is the setting of the healing of the lame person in Acts 3.
The Subversive Nature of the Gospel
Acts 2, a paradigmatic episode, contains within it subversive elements. Acts 2:5–11 contains a list of people from nations around the Roman world. The Roman government, in their propaganda, paraded their feats and control over the world by listing the peoples they had conquered. The one group that habitually gave them problems were the Parthians, the first group listed in Acts 2:5. The Romans could not list this group. Implications of this are: what the Roman power could not do — God could and did — but by quite different means. Subtly in a kingdom subversive way, God could do what Rome could not and differently. The healing of the lame person in Acts 3 likewise is subversive.16
While it is not clear that this man was an outcast such as lepers, he still belonged to the marginalized of society and was ridiculed by his culture.17 As a beggar, he served as a client to the elites who came by on their way to the temple. He had to be carried to and from his place of begging by several people. (The verb is plural in 3:2 — “they placed him daily at the gate,” author’s translation.)
These friends placed the lame man by the temple gate called “beautiful” where traffic was heavy.18 The subsistence of this person depended on the desire by the elite to receive honor. Each time someone gave him a coin, that person would receive public honor — the lame man was stuck in this system and had no way out. The culture had frozen him into this system from which there was no escape. By continuing to give as patrons, their desire for honor kept the lame man incarcerated in his oppression.
People accepted fate even though it gave some honor and showed others cruelty. When Peter and John came by on their way to the temple as Spirit-filled ministers in the new covenant, they offered for the first time a ray of hope for him — and for all. This healing would confront and change the system, and provide a new community culture where all its members had equal status and were accepted with honor.
Preaching the gospel in the new covenant era includes the reality of deliverance as salvation and its result — joy. Often it took the form of healing, as it did here in Acts 3, but always it included a lift in status. This man no longer was lame or marginalized — the gospel had not only delivered him, but had given him a social lift — in the Kingdom.
The gospel had invaded the world’s society in a subversive way and threatened its control of things. The rest of chapter 3 bears this out — the miracle brought both awe (i.e., the wonder of the miracle caught their attention in a big way) and opposition. The elite, religious or secular, could no longer get their societal/cultural honor from taking advantage of this helpless (lame from his mother’s womb) person.
The kingdom of God does not work that way. It does not use self-promotion techniques to advance its own agenda in the same way the worldly culture of that day and our day do. The Kingdom brings wholeness and goodness to its subjects — another way of saying honor (the Kingdom has its own system of honor also known as glory). God receives honor19 by extending salvation and wholeness (physical, social, and spiritual well-being) — not by oppressing people.
The world’s approach was still the same, but with the new exodus, the (former) lame man was singing praises to God who had lifted him and had given him great honor. The changed status of the lame man manifested itself in the church — God’s culture — the apostles receiving the healed man. They were not afraid to touch him — a sign of social acceptance — when they first broached him (3:7). Joy now filled the new person, and he accompanied the apostles (verse 8) walking, leaping, and praising God.
Notice, however, the nature of God’s subversiveness. God does not do this in a political or evil way — rather He does it with the highest of integrity. Instead of approaching the situation as a political or social issue (the early Christians had no say in government), Peter and John employ an appropriate approach based on the gospel and rooted in God’s love for the marginalized, although the prevailing temple authorities offered threatening responses to the preaching of the gospel.
Furthermore, Luke was not against assisting the poor and oppressed through other means such as giving alms. The Old Testament, Judaism, Jesus, and His followers all support this benevolent activity.20 By taking note of the miracle in this way, the healing of the man in Acts 3 emphasizes that the gospel effects a remarkable change in, and lift to, the marginalized and sinful. This is in stark contrast to the religious and cultural situations of the day.21
Christianity challenged the Roman and Judaistic political, cultural, and religious systems. For one, the prevailing Roman system had influenced the Jewish authorities. But long ago, Israel’s idolatry had caused God’s Spirit to depart from the temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel 8ff. calls this departure Ichabod — the glory had departed. But the Spirit would return someday — in the new covenant, in the new temple. The Spirit had returned to the temple in Acts 2 — this time the temple consisted of the redeemed people (now including the healed man no longer marginalized) of God, and they had prayed and received the Spirit in the shadow of the temple built with Herodian and Roman hands.22 It was a subversive act when God healed the lame man in the new covenant era inside the temple beside a gate called “beautiful.”
A Ministry Model
God worked subversively through Peter in the healing of the lame man, but in another way He spoke to the culture relevantly. Peter cut through the cultural norms of his day when those norms fell short of alleviating human sin and suffering. At the same time, Peter used a metaphor to communicate that the new exodus is the only solution to today’s cultural problems. The apostles knew they had to relate to the culture while subverting its basic sinful shortfall. In the metaphor, the apostles placed themselves in the service of the gospel. The use of this metaphor instructs all of us about the fundamental role of broker and mediator mentioned above.
In Acts 3, the gospel is the means by which all sinners are brought back to God. It is Jesus and His work that bridge a sinful world to a holy God. Jesus is the Broker throughout the Gospels. However, the apostles (and all believers) are minor brokers (mediators) when they preach the gospel (“We have no money, but we do have Jesus”). This is the heart of the matter, and it is what makes the Church missional.
This healing/salvation event typifies the nature of God’s saving work in the world and flows out of the new covenant. God not only atones for sinners, but He delivers them from sin’s consequence. The risen Lord and the Spirit’s activity implemented and directed this era of the new covenant.
The uppermost component in this new era is the Spirit. He is most concerned about the marginalized, sick, and oppressed. This, too, should be uppermost in the minds of church leaders in our post-Christian age and beyond. Before anything else, we must attune our theology (conviction) and praxis to this fact. To be both subversive and relevant, the 21st-century leader/believer must be astute and spiritually discerning. This truth is foundational and progressive, underscoring all training and exercise of skills, and it must be intentional.
We are people of the Spirit, and we should continually grow spiritually through prayer, fasting, and Bible reading. The result of spiritual growth is living in, and being led by the Spirit — to use Luke’s term — “Spirit filled.” As leaders, we must look to God for relating to the world and look to Him for help in evaluating our culture — the Kingdom (rule of God) is fundamentally subversive.
We must direct our resources where they will be the most effective — to those who are ridiculed, marginalized, and hurting. The heart of the gospel is missional — salvation’s center is the redemption and deliverance of all people.
Finally, the people of God must provide a Kingdom community where justice and righteousness thrive, where all people find forgiveness and acceptance (emphasis upon relationships), where all people are equal in status, and where love and nurture are at work. In short, the community of believers must be an ongoing, saving instrument of God through which He brings hurting people to wholeness.
1. For this work, I assume Luke wrote both Luke and Acts and these two books belong together.
2. The covenant in Luke/Acts is connected with Abraham at a number of places. See Acts 3:13 and Luke 1:72,73.
3. In contrast to other genres such as epistle, narrative shows rather than tells.
4. The term consists of two words “signs and wonders.”
5. Mark does this in the opening verses of his Gospel.
6. The Gospel of John emphasizes Jesus as the I AM of Isaiah.
7. I have made two changes from the NIV.
8. Language such as new exodus, exile, and etc., in scholarly literature is a common occurrence. For a sample of new exodus language and a new exodus hermeneutic in Acts see David W. Pao, Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus (J.C.B. Mohr, 2000; reprinted by Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002). One also can benefit greatly from Rikki E. Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (J.C.B. Mohr, 1997; reprinted by Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000).
9. In fact, the blind and the lame were ridiculed in most cases, except in some Jewish texts where good works were emphasized. To ridicule these folk was forbidden. Cf. Mikeal C. Parsons, “The Character of the Lame Man in Acts 3-4,” Society of Biblical Literature 124/2 (2005): 305 and F. Scott Spencer,Acts (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 45.
10. NIV. Other such terms often occur together: In addition to the texts cited above, see Matthew 11:5; Luke 7:22; 14:13,21; John 5:3; 8:7; 14:8. Acts seems to focus on lameness: see 8:7 and 14:8.
12. See cwlos in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition, rev., & ed. by Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1093.
13. See Matthew 13:53–58 and Luke 6:1–6 respectively. These two Gospels do refer to Isaiah in other places but not here and not in the same way. The conclusion is the same, however. It is Luke who emphasizes the presence of the Spirit in the life and ministry of Jesus. That the new exodus, focused on Jesus’ powerful work and that of the Spirit, had arrived is widespread in the New Testament
15. An adverbial clause that is rarely used points to this conclusion, occurring only twice in the New Testament and both in Luke’s writings: Luke 9:51 and here.
16. See Gary Gilbert, “The List of Nations in Acts 2: Roman Propaganda and the Lukan Response, Journal of Biblical Literature 121/3 (2002): 497–529. See also “Luke’s Geographical Propaganda, Acts 2:9–11 at: http://markmoore.jesuspolitics.net/?p=23 (accessed 01/15/2010) much later (2009) picks up on this and notes: “It is the subversive leavening influence of believers, seeded in the kingdoms of this world that undermines the dominating powers of Rome and spreads the fame of Yahweh. This list from Luke is anti-Roman political propaganda which advocates kenotic politics at its finest.”
17. Cf. Parsons, “The disabled, and the lame in particular, in the ancient world were objects of ridicule and derision.” See “The Character of the Lame Man in Acts 3–4,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 124/2 (2005): 304.
18. His plight and the name of this gate (beautiful) is a stark contrast, noting the social situation of his plight and the oppressive situation of the elite.
19. Quite often in Scripture, honor should be thought of as glory and vice versa.
20. See for example, the sharing of all things in the following verses and chapters in Acts and in Matthew 25:31–40. New Testament texts seem to reserve this kind of healing for people outside the Kingdom but ready to receive it (i.e., salvation) while reserving special ongoing care to needy believers.
21. Another way in which Luke is subversive is in his use of physiognomy. He wishes to show that God excludes no one from His kingdom because of his appearance. See Parsons, “The Character of the Lame Man in Acts 3,4,” 295–312. On p. 299 Parsons specifically notes: “Luke refuses to exclude anyone from the ‘social body’ of this eschatological community on the basis of the shape of the physical body, as the physiognomists would have done. In four texts in particular (the bent woman, Luke 13; Zacchaeus, Luke 19; the lame man, Acts 3,4; and the Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8), Luke introduces the traditional understanding of physiognomy only to undermine it. No one is excluded from the eschatological community on the basis of his or her physical appearance, and this [sic] is the message regarding physiognomy that Luke wishes to teach.
22. Cf. G.K. Beale, “The Descent of the Eschatological Temple in the Form of the Spirit at Pentecost: Part 1: The Clearest Evidence,” Tyndale Bulletin 56.1 (2005): 73–102.