by Beverly R. Gaventa

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In a striking departure from customary readings of the Acts of the Apostles as the story of the growth of the church, Gaventa argues that Luke's second volume has to do with nothing less than the activity of God. From the beginning of the story at Jesus' Ascension and extending until well past the final report of Paul's activity in Rome, Luke narrates a relentlessly


In a striking departure from customary readings of the Acts of the Apostles as the story of the growth of the church, Gaventa argues that Luke's second volume has to do with nothing less than the activity of God. From the beginning of the story at Jesus' Ascension and extending until well past the final report of Paul's activity in Rome, Luke narrates a relentlessly theological story, in which matters of institutional history or biography play only an incidental role. Gaventa pays careful attention to Luke's story of God, as well as to the numerous characters who set themselves in opposition to God's plan.

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Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles

By Beverly Roberts Gaventa

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-05821-1


Part One

Witness and Resistance in Jerusalem (3:1–8:3)

The events of Pentecost not only fulfill the promise of the Spirit's empowerment but also inaugurate the witness to Jesus. This section of Acts provides ample indication of the witness of the apostles in Jerusalem (1:8). In response to that witness, many join the believers, and the community continues to generate awe. Alongside this reception of the gospel, however, grows a negative reaction that culminates in Stephen's death and the flight of believers in the face of persecution.

A Healing Prompts a Second Speech (3:1-26)

As at Pentecost, here also a miraculous event compels Peter to serve as a witness to the gospel. This time the event takes the form of a miracle that corresponds to the pattern of Jesus' miracles in the Synoptic Gospels (vv. 110). First, the afflicted individual appears on the scene, together with some indication of the severity of his or her condition (v. 2; e.g., Luke 5:18-19). Second, the healer intervenes, most often with little or no elaboration of the healing itself (vv. 3-7a; e.g., Luke 5:20-24). Third, the healed individual acts in some way that demonstrates the success of the healing (vv. 7b-8; e.g., Luke 5:25). Finally, bystanders respond with amazement (vv. 9-10; e.g., Luke 5:26).

Unlike most healing stories in the Synoptic Gospels, however, this one is followed by a speech of explanation. In general, this speech resembles the form of the Pentecost speech. It opens by connecting the healing to Jesus and returns to the charge that Jerusalem Jews were responsible for his death (vv. 12-16), then calls for repentance (vv. 17-21) and identifies Jesus as a prophet like Moses (vv. 22-26).

* * *

A Healing in Jesus' Name (3:1-10)

Although the story begins abruptly, with little transition from chapter 2, important factors nevertheless tie it to the preceding description of community life. Confirming the report that believers spent "much time together in the temple" (2:46), Peter and John enter the temple precincts for prayer. The healing itself provides a vivid illustration of the "wonders and signs" ascribed to the apostles (2:43). Connections extend not only to the previous section of Acts, however, but further back into the early chapters of Luke's Gospel, where Jesus heals a paralytic and discusses with the scribes and Pharisees his authority to do so (Luke 5:17-26).

The story in Acts occurs at "three o'clock in the afternoon," in the vicinity of the "Beautiful Gate." According to Josephus, the daily sacrifices required by the Torah (see Exod 29:38-39; Lev 6:20) occurred early in the morning and at three o'clock in the afternoon (Josephus, Ant. 14.65-66; see also Ant. 3.237). Ancient sources make no mention of a "Beautiful Gate," but it may coincide with what the Mishnah identifies as the Nicanor Gate, which was constructed of bronze (see m. Mid. 1:4; 2:3; Josephus, J. W. 5.201).

Like most biblical healing stories, this one shows little interest in the individual who receives the healing. He is described simply as having been "lame from birth," a condition about which Luke demonstrates considerable concern (e.g., Luke 7:22; 14:13, 21; Acts 8:7; 14:8-10). Commentators sometimes argue from Lev 21:16-18 that his handicap would have prohibited him full access to temple worship (see also m. Šabb. 6:8; Witherington 1998, 173-74), but those restrictions apply only to priests who are offering sacrifices. More probably, the man's daily station at a temple gate offered him access to the considerable traffic into the temple area. Since the bestowing of alms is understood to reflect a virtuous life, both in Luke–Acts (e.g., Luke 11:41; 12:33; Acts 9:36; 10:2-4) and elsewhere (e.g., Tob 4:7-11; 12:8-9; Sir 3:30; 12:3; Matt 6:2-4; Syb. Or. 2:78-80; Did. 15:4; 2 Clem. 16:4), his request is an honorable one.

Despite the pairing of Peter and John (as in 4:1, 13; 8:14, 17, 25; cf. Luke 8:51; 22:8), it is Peter alone who responds to the man's appeal. Peter's words evoke a dramatic contrast between the money the man seeks as a temporary respite and the healing available through Jesus' name. Because they are spoken in the shadow of the temple with its ornaments of silver and gold, there is also a contrast between the money Peter does not have and the faith that he does have. The contrast reinforces Luke's rhetoric about the peril of money (see, e.g., 8:20 [silver]; 16:16; 20:33 [silver and gold]).

The result of Peter's action comes "immediately," as is frequently the case with miraculous events in Luke–Acts (e.g., Luke 1:64; 4:39; 8:47; Acts 5:10; 12:23). Although miracle stories normally include some indication of the effectiveness of the healing, the demonstration here runs well beyond convention, as the man not only jumps up and walks but then enters the temple "walking and leaping and praising God." The exuberant physical response recalls Isa 35:6: "then the lame shall leap like a deer"; by going into the temple and praising God, the man indicates his awareness of the source of this miracle. This action also directly connects him with the actions of the believing community, which spends time in the temple and praising God (see 2:46-47).

The impact of the healing extends well beyond the individual himself. Since the term "people" (laos) in Luke–Acts most often refers to Israel (see, e.g., Luke 1:68; 2:32; 24:19; Acts 2:47), "all the people" includes, at least in a symbolic fashion, far more people than those actually present for the event (see 4:4). As 2:47 reports on the goodwill believers enjoyed among "all the people," here also the news of this event has spread well beyond those who happened to be in the vicinity of the Beautiful Gate at the time of this encounter.

Peter's Second Speech (3:11-26)

The Author of Life (3:11-16): The venue changes prior to the speech itself, for the crowd assembles in Solomon's Portico, a colonnade that may have run along the eastern wall of the temple enclosure (although the location is by no means certain). Similar to Pentecost, Peter begins his speech by addressing a misconception about the occasion (see 2:15). Contrary to the conclusion that might have been drawn from the healing, Peter and John make no claim for themselves. This is no mere rhetorical flourish, since later episodes will provoke similar confusion in response to the miraculous (14:8-18; 28:1-6). In addition, the story of Herod's death demonstrates God's judgment against those who refuse to acknowledge their humanity (12:23; but see also 28:6, where Paul does not correct those who mistake him for a god).

In vv. 13-15a, as in 2:22-24, Peter begins by sharply contrasting the actions of God with those of the inhabitants of Jerusalem; these verses once again drive home the culpability of Jerusalem's populace in the death of Jesus and the powerful counteracting deed of God in the resurrection. To begin with, the description of God as the "God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors" invokes the theophany at Sinai by means of identifying the one who has overturned the rejecters of Jesus (see Exod 3:6, 15; Luke 20:37). Although Pilate is portrayed in other ancient sources in harsh terms (Josephus, Ant. 18.55-62, 85-88; Philo, Embassy 299-305), Luke's Gospel declares that he made a just decision (see Luke 23:13-25).

A series of escalating verbs draws attention to the injustice of the people's actions against Jesus. First, they "handed over" Jesus, then they "rejected" him before Pilate. Peter again charges them with rejecting Jesus, seeking the release of a murderer, and becoming murderers themselves in that they "killed" Jesus. The NRSV obscures the fact that the "you" in vv. 13-14 translates an emphatic pronoun (hymeis) that underscores the contrast between God and Israel ("you yourselves").

The language used here for Jesus draws attention to this contrast. He is God's "servant" (pais; see 4:27). He is also the "Holy and Righteous One," recalling especially the declaration of Jesus at the cross as righteous ("innocent" in the NRSV, Luke 23:47; see also Acts 22:14). He is also the "Author of life" (archegos tes zoes). Luke uses this term again in 5:31, where it refers to Jesus as "Leader and Savior" (NRSV; see also Heb 2:10; 12:2). Although the exact connotation here, whether author or originator or leader, is unclear, the irony of charging the audience with killing the very originator of life is inescapable.

Perhaps because v. 16 makes several important assertions simultaneously, it reads awkwardly even in the NRSV, which has considerably smoothed out the inelegant syntax of the Greek. To begin with, v. 16 reminds the audience that they know this man and that they have seen his now "perfect health" (cf. v. 10). Also, it is faith that has brought about his restoration ("by faith in his name," and "the faith that is through Jesus"). In the Gospels, the faith that acts in a healing is usually that of the afflicted person (Mark 1:40-45; 10:4652) or of someone who intercedes for the afflicted (Mark 5:22-43; 9:14-29). In this account, however, the faith that is active must be that of Peter and John, since the man himself shows no sign of expecting a healing. (On the contrary, he is explicitly said to be hoping for alms.) Yet Luke is not boasting in the faith of Peter and John, for v. 16 recalls Peter's earlier words of v. 6: it is the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth that has brought about this restoration.

The Appointed Messiah (3:17-21): Having both addressed the question of how this miracle occurred and thereby introduced the gospel of Jesus, the speech moves quickly to call for repentance. Despite the harsh rhetoric of vv. 13-15, Peter concedes that the people and their rulers acted out of ignorance. He recalls again that this series of events fulfills God's plan, here with the extraordinary claim that "all the prophets" had said the Messiah would suffer.

The call for repentance in vv. 17-21 elaborates on the call in the Pentecost speech. On this occasion, the plea is not only that the audience should "repent," but also that it should "turn." The words "to God," added in the NRSV, do not appear in the Greek. "Turning to God" is an expression normally used of Gentile conversion (as in Acts 26:18; 1 Thess 1:9). Jews already know God through Israel's history (see v. 13), although they also have sins that require forgiveness (see especially v. 26).

The call for repentance significantly identifies both the benefits of repentance and, in v. 23, the consequences for those who will not repent. Repentance brings with it the "wiping out" of sins, a graphic image used also in Ps 51:1, 9 (LXX Ps 50:3, 11; see also Isa 43:25, Col 2:14). Beyond this essentially negative act, repentance also brings "times of refreshing," a phrase that has no counterpart elsewhere in Luke–Acts. Luke employs time designations in the plural for those events that lead up to some culminating event, and time designations in the singular for the event itself (e.g., Luke 17:22-31; Acts 2:17, 20), so "times of refreshing" probably refers to a period prior to the parousia itself (Carroll 1988, 143; Kurz 1977, 309-10), in all likelihood synonymous with the "refreshing" power of the Holy Spirit and the new community and its joyous common life (2:43-47).

Verse 21 extends the remarks about Jesus in an unusual way, with the claim, found nowhere else in the New Testament, that Jesus "must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration." This assertion recalls not only the story of Jesus' ascension in Luke 24 and Acts 1, but also the relationship between that ascension and the promise of Jesus' return (1:11). A literal translation of "the time of universal restoration" would be "until the times of the restoration of all." Here again a plural reference to times precedes an event in the singular (as in v. 20, see above), so that, while the restoration times are not the equivalent of the return of Jesus, they anticipate it. Given that the apostles have already inquired about the "restoration" of the kingdom (a cognate verb rather than the same noun, 1:6), the "restoration of all" surely includes restoring the kingdom of Israel (see also Acts 1:6), but it may extend well beyond that promise to include other prophetic statements such as those of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), John the Baptist (Luke 3:4-8), and Jesus (Luke 24:46-47).

A Prophet Like Moses (3:22-26): With v. 22, Peter turns again to Scripture, as in the Pentecost speech. Here, instead of comparing Jesus with David, he quotes the promise of a "prophet like Moses." The quotation draws primarily from Deut 18:15-19 but contains also phrases from Lev 23:29. Evidence from other early Jewish and Christian texts indicates that there may well have been extensive eschatological expectation of this "prophet like Moses" (see, e.g., 7:37; John 1:21; 6:14; 7:40; 1QS 9:11; 4QTest 1-8). Peter appeals to the authority not only of Moses but of "all the prophets" who join in this expectation (Luke 24:27; Acts 3:18; 10:43; 26:22; 28:23).

Unlike the Pentecost speech, which contains little by way of threat for those who reject the witness (although see 2:40), this one carries an unequivocal threat for those who will not hear and obey (recall Simeon's prophecy of "falling and rising" in Luke 2:34). What is at stake here is nothing less than whether the audience will continue to be part of Israel (Juel 1992, 45-47). Yet vv. 24-25 reinforce the identity of the hearers as Israel even as they threaten, for these are the "descendants of the prophets," the children of "the covenant," the first to whom God sent "his servant" so that they might receive the blessing. Especially noteworthy here is the expression "descendants [lit. sons] of the prophets," a phrase that appears nowhere else in the New Testament and in the Old Testament refers to particular groups of prophets (e.g., 1 Kgs 20:35 [LXX 21:35]; 2 Kgs 2:3, 5, 7, 15; 4:1, 38; 5:22; 6:1; 9:1). The only exception is Tob 4:12, which appears to refer to all Israel as "descendants of the prophets." In view of the charge Stephen will soon make, that his own Jerusalem audience consists of the children of those who persecuted and murdered the prophets, this identification takes on an ironic coloration (7:51-52).

* * *

Important features of Luke's Christology come to the fore in this passage. Here as elsewhere Luke uses a variety of titles for Jesus (servant, Holy and Righteous One, Author of life, Messiah, prophet), giving little indication what content any of those titles carries. More revealing is the narrative of human rejection, even murder, followed by God's resurrection and glorification. Luke's emphasis on the ascension of Jesus into heaven (1:11) comes to its most forceful expression with the claim that he "must remain in heaven." Yet if Jesus is absent, he is also powerfully present by means of his "name," which here brings about a miraculous healing and soon will bring about a conflict with religious authorities (MacRae 1973).

As in the Pentecost speech, Peter interprets the death and resurrection of Jesus as part of God's plan. By contrast with other important New Testament writings, Luke makes no claim about the saving efficacy of Jesus' death or resurrection. Luke does not interpret the death of Jesus as sacrificial (see especially Hebrews) or as revelatory (as in Paul's letters). For Luke, salvation comes through God's comprehensive plan for human salvation (see Introduction).

Consistent with 1:7, the speech makes no effort to predict when Jesus will return and offers no guidelines for those who might wish to venture such predictions. For Luke, eschatology has far less to do with chronology than it does with Christology, in the sense of understanding the identity of Jesus as God's Messiah, and with community, in the sense of the urgent need for the people of Israel to hear and respond. Even as this speech addresses an audience of Israel and does so in terms of their identity as God's people, however, it also anticipates the extension of the promise to "all the families of the earth" (v. 25).

Resistance and Response (4:1-31)

The response that follows Peter's Pentecost speech is overwhelmingly positive, with fabulous numbers of people added to the community and no mention of resistance to Christian proclamation. Following the speech of chapter 3, however, the religious leadership in Jerusalem sounds the first notes of resistance. The narrative transition at 4:1-4 introduces these leaders and their reaction to the activity of Peter and John. The brief custody itself (vv. 5-22) Luke narrates in two distinct parts. First, a question addressed to Peter provides him with an opportunity to recapitulate his earlier speeches (4:5-12). Second, the authorities, realizing their own inability to take more severe measures, threaten and then release Peter and John (4:13-22). Peter and John subsequently return to their fellow believers and respond to this initial conflict with corporate prayer, a prayer that is apparently answered with gifts of emboldened speech and other signs of God's power (4:23-31).

* * *

Peter and John in Triumphant Custody (4:1-22)

Luke's inclusion of the Sadducees in the group arresting Peter and John is striking, for they had no particular standing as authorities in the temple precincts, although they were the group within first-century Judaism most sympathetic with the priesthood and most protective of its prerogatives (see Josephus, Ant. 13.297-98; 18.16-17; J. W. 2.164-65). Because they also rejected belief in the resurrection of the dead, they become the ideal foils for the apostles and their preaching (see also 23:6-10).


Excerpted from Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles by Beverly Roberts Gaventa. Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Beverly Roberts Gaventa is Helen H. P. Manson Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminary

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