The Christ & Prophet Who Turns Us from Wickedness
Passage: Acts 3:17–3:26
We’re in the middle of Peter preaching to a crowd of Jews amazed at the healing of a lame man. The healing signals something huge. The healing is not only proof that God glorified Jesus. It’s a foretaste of the holistic liberation Jesus won for us through his death on the cross. He bore our illnesses; he carried our sorrows. Most important, he took away our sin to bring us to God. Peter will develop more of the holistic liberation found in Jesus, as well as our response to it, repentance. Let’s hear the word of the Lord in verses 17-26…
17 “And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18 But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. 19 Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, 20 that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, 21 whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. 22 Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. 23 And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’ 24 And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days. 25 You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ 26 God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.”
Peter has one agenda: to exalt Christ and to persuade this crowd to turn to him. You can see it verse 19: “Repent…and turn again.” Why? Well, the healing was evidence that God glorified Jesus (Acts 3:13). He lifted up Jesus as King. And Jesus’ kingdom is coming to make the world right again, healed from all sickness and sin.[i] If all that’s true, though, these Jews have a major problem. According to verses 13-15, these Jews delivered Jesus over to Pilate, denied him and then killed him. They rejected the one God vindicated. By opposing Jesus, they have opposed God. They stand as God’s enemies.
But all hope isn’t lost. Peter gives the bigger picture in verses 17-18: “And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled.” Meaning, God fulfilled his promise by way of their ignorance (cf. Acts 13:27).[ii] They didn’t know it, but God was fulfilling his word all along. We could put Genesis 50:20 over Jesus’ death: “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”
The crucifixion of Jesus was not an accident; it was God’s sovereign design. Whether that’s Moses explaining the Passover lamb (Exod 12-13), or King David suffering in the Psalms (e.g., Ps 22; 69), or Isaiah speaking about the Suffering Servant (Isa 53), or Zechariah expecting the pierced one (Zech 12:10)—God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets that his Christ would suffer, and suffer for sinners.
The point is that “Yes, you acted in ignorance. Yes, you’re still responsible. But know this: God had a plan to save you even before you rebelled. You might have crucified him, but ultimately it was God offering his Son for you. Repent therefore.”
Repentance Is Relational; Turning to the Lord
We looked at repentance some in Acts 2:38. Repentance will be a theme we keep returning to in Acts. As it was in Jesus’ ministry, so it is here: repentance is a response to the King and his coming kingdom. The healing manifested God’s kingdom drawing near, so now it’s time to repent. God glorified his Servant, so we best commit ourselves to his agenda. God fulfilled the prophecies about his Servant dying for our sins, so the time to respond is now.
Repentance is more than just agreeing with God in our mind. Throughout Scripture repentance affects our inner motives. The concept is very close to the Old Testament idea of “turning” to the Lord.[iii] We alluded to this in 2:38, but Peter makes it explicit in verse 19: “repent…and turn again.” Acts will later use the same word to describe the Gentiles turning to the Lord, or turning from darkness to light (Acts 9:35; 11:21; 15:19; 26:18). At the end of Acts Paul quotes from Isaiah 6:10 showing how true healing comes when we turn to the Lord from the heart.
The language of turning shows that repentance is relational. Repentance is a matter of turning to the Lord. Repentance is not merely feeling bad about your sin. It’s not merely saying you’re sorry for what you did. It’s not just getting rid of the sins that frustrate you the most. Central to repentance is turning to the Lord.
Now, is holy behavior part of walking out repentance? Absolutely. Will repentance produce confessions like, “I’m sorry”? Absolutely. Will we take extreme measures—gouging out eyes, cutting off hands—to keep from sin? Yes. But beneath those external changes must be the person of Christ treasured. Repentance is incomplete if there’s no turning to the Lord. Behavioral change that’s divorced from a relationship with Christ is mere moralism; and it’s damning. True repentance is relational. It’s a renewed internal affection for the Lord, for his kingdom, for his passions.
Repentance Is Necessary; God Will Banish Us Otherwise
Having said that, many of us could walk away with a better definition of repentance without actually repenting, without ever turning to the Lord. That’s a dangerous place to be spiritually. I say it’s dangerous, because without repentance God will banish us from his people. Repentance is necessary. We’ll come back to verses 19-21 in a minute. The necessity of repentance appears in verses 22-23.
Moses said, "The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people."
Moses is one of the prophets that spoke about Christ. Peter quotes from Deuteronomy 18:15. Deuteronomy 18 is about God raising up a future prophet like Moses. As Moses did, he would reveal God’s will for his people and lead the people out of slavery. Moses was the mediator of the old covenant people; and Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant people. Peter is saying that Jesus is the ultimate prophet like Moses. Peter joins the rest of the New Testament that presents Jesus as the prophet superior to Moses.[iv] The ultimate reveler of God’s will and the ultimate deliverer of God’s people is Jesus Christ. Not listening to Jesus, therefore, has serious consequences. Peter says, “every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.”
What’s very interesting here is that you won’t find that threat in Deuteronomy 18. You will find it in Leviticus 23:29, which is a passage on the Day of Atonement. Peter combines a passage on the final prophet with a passage on atonement. The Day of Atonement had to do with God providing a covering for sin and removing sins from the people. But if you failed to participate in the Day of Atonement, then God would cut you off from his people. You would keep your sins, and pay the penalty for them yourself.
By bringing in a text dealing with atonement, Peter is making a bold point. Not listening to Jesus will mean you’re like the person for whom there is no atonement. To ignore Jesus is to keep your sins and pay the penalty for them yourself. God will banish you from his covenant people and blessings. Why is that? Why does not listening to Jesus mean no atonement for your sins? Because Jesus is the atonement for our sins. He is not only the supreme Prophet, he is the supreme Priest. If you reject his prophetic word, then you reject what his prophetic word reveals about his priestly work. So listen to Jesus; turn to the Lord, so that you’re not banished. Repentance is necessary.
Repentance Is a Gift; God’s Grace Provides
Repentance is also a gift of God’s grace. Look now at verses 24-25: “And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days. You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’”
Last week we saw that Jesus was the Suffering Servant from Isaiah. Peter just developed how Jesus was also the prophet expected by Moses. Now we’re seeing that Jesus is the true offspring of Abraham. God’s promise to Abraham to bless all families finds it’s fulfillment in the coming of Christ. He’s trying to get these Jews—these physical descendants of Abraham—to wake up. God promised them immense blessings in Abraham. And with the coming of Christ, they’re here; they’re available in him!
But notice the particular blessing he mentions. Verse 26, “God, having raised up his servant [that’s Jesus], sent him to you first [i.e., you Jews that God promised these blessings], to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.” God turning us from wickedness is part of the promised blessing. It’s God’s gift. He’s going to create for himself a people by turning them from wickedness. It sets them apart from the world.
A lot of times when we think of God’s blessings, we think merely in terms of the material—money, health, food, family, a job, nice weather, and so forth. All these things are good gifts that we should enjoy to God’s glory. But don’t miss that one of God’s primary blessings is turning us from the very things harming our relationship with him. Our greatest problem isn’t the lack of material or physical blessings; our greatest problem is wickedness? Our greatest problem is all that separates us from God.
What sort of wickedness is in you? Do you love money way too much? Are you bitter and full of resentment toward others? Do you fear people and love their approval more than God’s? Has food become an idol? Is comfort ruling your decisions in life? Are you choosing pornography and sexual immorality over Christ? Are you in the habit of making uncharitable judgments about others, or putting on a façade of smiles while hatred fills your heart? Are you lazy with engaging the world for Christ? Are you choosing to be angry with just about anybody who gets in your way?
Wickedness has all kinds of forms. Some of our wickedness, people will never see or know about, because we’re so good at hiding it and too ashamed to mention it. The twisted thoughts and desires are there. The truth is that we must turn from that wickedness, or God promises to banish us from his people.
But the good news is that in Christ, God’s grace grants what he also demands. Turning away from wickedness is a gift. It’s God’s blessing to all of Abraham’s true children. It’s his gift to all united to Jesus by faith. Jesus came to turn us from our wickedness to God. We can’t do it on our own. But in Christ, we can. In Christ we can repent—not because of a power inherent to us, but because of the power inherent to Christ; and he is in the believer. By the Spirit, he enters to turn the heart.
Repentance Is Rewarding: Three Incentives
This news of God’s grace in Christ then gets even better. Not only does God’s grace supply what he also demands. God’s grace rewards the repentance he causes. Let’s head back to verses 19-21, where Peter gives them three incentives to repent. These incentives flow from Jesus’ finished work on the cross. Verse 18 said that God fulfilled his word that the Christ would suffer—“therefore, repent.” It’s Palm Sunday today, a day we set aside to remember Christ riding into Jerusalem to claim his kingdom not with a bloody sword but through his bloodied body given on the cross.
We gain God’s complete forgiveness
Jesus’ blood, first of all, wins us complete forgiveness. When we repent and turn to the Lord: we gain God’s complete forgiveness. Verse 19, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out.”
What does it mean for our sins to be “blotted out”? Jews familiar with their Scriptures might have recalled David’s words in Psalm 51: “According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions…Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities” (Ps 51:1, 9). The idea is that God accounts for all our sins. They’re all before him listed out, and they have consequences that disrupt fellowship with him. David is asking for God to erase them from history altogether.[v] Make them disappear.
The same idea appears in the New Testament. In Colossians 2:14 Paul speaks of a written record of our debt before God. This written record contains penalty clauses for every infraction of God’s moral law.[vi] For every wrong we do—and the list is quite long—we stand guilty and sentenced to death. It’s even something the Devil can hold against us, to accuse us. But the whole reason Paul brings it up is to say that in Jesus’ death, God cancelled that written record, or blotted it out.
In the first century, the ink used on ancient papyrus wouldn’t etch itself into the material. It sat on top, somewhat like writing on wax paper. Blotting it out was to take a wet sponge and wipe the document clean.[vii] So also here and in Colossians. When we repent and turn to Christ, God so wipes away our sins that there remains no trace of them. The sin, the guilt for the sin, any reminders of the sin—all wiped away in Christ.
Not just crossed out, as if to say God still holds the list of sins in front of us and says, “Don’t forget this one, and this one, and this one.” If that’s how you’re viewing God’s love and the extant of Jesus’ work on the cross, then you’re missing the beauty of the true gospel. The true gospel says that in Christ your sins are blotted out and your penalty was paid for in total by Christ. It’s all erased forever, never to be used against you. It’s so erased, that the holy God himself is 100% for you.
We gain the Spirit’s refreshment
Which leads to refreshment, doesn’t it. Let’s move to that next: we gain the Spirit’s refreshment. Verse 20, “…that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” By “times” of refreshing, Peter doesn’t mean mere instances of refreshment. He means the inauguration of an entire age characterized by refreshment.
Some people limit this refreshment to the future kingdom. But these “times [pl.] of refreshing” are the same as “these days” in verse 24—the obvious point being that they’ve already begun. They’re here in part already. It’s the entire age brought in by Jesus’ death and resurrection and the gift of his Spirit. In Acts, who is it that brings the presence of God? It’s the Spirit. The Spirit not only comes from the presence of the Lord (cf. Acts 2:33); he is the Lord’s presence.[viii]
Yes, there’s a sense in which that final, ultimate refreshment of a new heaven and a new earth is still coming. But, through the Spirit, the refreshment of the age to come can be experienced in part now. The way he does it is by applying Jesus’ finished work on the cross to our hearts. Let me list just a few ways the New Testament presents the Spirit bringing us refreshment. We alluded to one already, but the Spirit works to lift the burden of sin, the weight of condemnation. 2 Corinthians 3:17 says, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”—and he means freedom from the Law’s condemnation.
Romans 5:5 teaches that the Holy Spirit confirms God’s love for us in the gospel, so that we don’t lose hope in suffering. God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. John’s Gospel speaks of the Spirit in the believer as living water, a well springing up to eternal life—and eternal life is knowing God truly in Jesus Christ (cf. John 4:14; 7:38; 17:3). We don’t have to wait for the kingdom to drink living water; it’s available in Christ now through the Spirit (cf. Zech 14:8; Rev 7:7).
Romans 8:15, the Spirit assures us of God adopting us into his family. Romans 15:13, the Spirit empowers us to abound in hope. Acts 9:31, the Spirit comforts the church in a time when persecution was increasing. On and on the New Testament goes with different ways the Spirit brings refreshment now.
You know those seasons in life where things are tense, the demands are great, the nights are sometimes long—and maybe the Lord gives you a little pause with a dear friend, maybe you have a special place you enjoy sitting on the back porch, maybe the kids are asleep and you look up at the stars and the grandeur of God’s night, maybe you’re enjoying a favorite drink, and just for a moment you breathe a sigh of relief and feel refreshed. God’s Spirit brings that kind of refreshment for our spirit as he applies the victory in Christ’s death and resurrection.
We gain Christ who is restoring all things
The last incentive for repentance is that we gain Christ who is restoring all things. Verse 20, “…and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.”
God has promises for Israel’s restoration: a new kingdom (Isa 11:1-16), a restored land (Ezek 36:26-32), a holy city (Zech 1:14-17; 2:4-5), a united people (Ezek 37:15-28), riches in a new heaven and earth (Isa 65:17-25). The Messiah was going to bring them that restoration (Isa 11:1-2; Zech 3:8; 6:12; Ezek 37:24). Peter is telling them that Jesus is their Messiah. And in one sense, that time for Israel’s restoration has begun. Jesus has taken his throne. He sent his Spirit. The blessings of the age to come are crashing into the present—the “times of refreshing” are here; “these days” have arrived; Look! A lame man is leaping like the deer.
But there’s another sense in which their full restoration won’t take place until Jesus returns. Peter is telling these Jews to hasten that restoration by turning to their Messiah. We don’t talk about that as often, but there’s a sense in which our obedient response hastens the day of Christ. In 2 Peter 3:16, we hear a similar plea: “…what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.” That doesn’t compromise God’s sovereignty: he knows the day and the hour of Christ’s return. But he also designs into that sovereign plan repentance as a means of bringing that day to fruition.
We also shouldn’t ignore the Jewishness of Peter’s appeal. Jesus is their Messiah first. The promises of the restoration were made to Abraham’s descendants. But the Jewishness of his appeal should make us all the more grateful for Christ, because in Christ—Abraham’s true offspring—we “Johnny come lately” Gentiles participate in the restoration of God’s people as well. The fullness of the Gentiles must come in—Romans 11:25 says—and in this way, all Israel will be saved. If we repent and turn to Jesus, we gain Christ who is restoring all things.
Turn to the Lord Jesus Christ for refreshment/restoration
Let me ask you a question. If Christ is restoring all things; if one day he will return and transform the earth into a cosmic Garden-sanctuary, where all nations will find healing in his presence (Rev 21-22)—does he have the power to restore you right now? Can he bring refreshment to your weary soul today? You bet he can.
Don’t turn to the world for refreshment and restoration. Don’t turn to all the “self-help” books and programs that wax so eloquently about finding yourself and discovering the better you. There is no better “you” to discover. The deeper you look within for restoration, the more broken you will become. We are the problem to begin with. True refreshment and restoration are found outside of you in Christ.
In the things that matter most, we’re incapable of helping ourselves. Only God can turn us from wicked desires and bring us spiritual refreshment. Only Christ can restore our humanity and turn the upside-down world right-side up. We saw that in his healing of the lame man and now in his turning of sinners from their wickedness. Turn to the Lord to gain true refreshment and restoration. He begins with wiping away your sins, and lifting the burden of your guilt.
See Christ in the Old Testament with the apostles
Something else I want us taking away is this: see Christ in the Old Testament with the apostles. With every sentence, Peter links Jesus with something promised in Old Testament and now being fulfilled through his glorification. He mentions all the prophets and gives a few examples like Moses, Samuel, and all who came after Samuel. Moses and all the prophets is two thirds of your Old Testament—all bearing witness to Jesus—and that’s just from one speech in Acts.
The point is that Jesus fulfills all of God’s saving promises, and we will understand our Bibles to the degree that we comprehend that. Jesus is the goal of all Scripture and the key to understanding the Scriptures truly (esp. Luke 24:25-27; John 5:39-47). If you bypass Jesus, then you will not understand the Old Testament. That would be like reading the Chronicles of Narnia while ignoring Aslan. It doesn’t make any sense. Take the further revelation that we have from the apostles, and read the Old Testament through that lens (cf. Luke 24:44-49; John 2:22; 12:16; 14:26).
This will also help you preach the gospel to our neighbors in other religions like Judaism, Islam, and Mormonism. These religions make use of the Old Testament in other ways, but they overlook or misconstrue God’s final revelation in Christ. Christ is the true and final Prophet we must listen to, or we perish.
Walk in repentance as God’s covenant people
Lastly, walk in repentance as God’s covenant people. God’s new covenant people are characterized by repentance (e.g., Jas 5:16; 1 John 1:5-10). What makes us different from the world isn’t that we’re not sinners, but that Christ forgives us and turns us away from our sins to himself. In fact, one of the reasons we practice church discipline is that the church is a people who repent. The process of corrective discipline only sets in when we refuse to repent; when we walk in a manner that says, “I’d rather have my sin than Jesus” (e.g., Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:1-11). Otherwise, we walk out repentance together, even when it’s hard and it sometimes hurts.
Some of you are stuck in sinful patterns. These words exhort us to repent and turn again to the Lord. Don’t think that you’re “Okay” just because you said a prayer when you were six, or just because you go through the motions of Church-ianity. The true children of Abraham turn away from their sins (Acts 3:25-26). If you’re not, and have no desire to, then you need to seriously consider whether you know the Lord. He stands ready to save you today, just as he stood ready to save these Jews who crucified Jesus.
Some of you have thrown up your hands in the fight of faith. You wonder whether change is even possible anymore. This passage says Yes. Change is possible, because God blesses his people by turning them from their wickedness (Acts 3:26). Cry to him for help (Heb 2:18; 4:16). Pray for strength in the fight (Eph 6:10). Look again to the cross, where you already died with Christ, and that old sinful self was buried in the grave (Rom 6:6). Trust in his resurrection power to help you walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4, 14). Every grace you need to overcome sin is available in Christ. Sometimes we need help connecting those dots from the gospel to the fight against sin—so seek out brothers and sisters. They’re God’s grace to you as well. He puts us in each other’s lives to be conduits of grace in the battle against sin (e.g., Heb 3:13; 10:24-26).
And don’t lose hope: the restoration that Jesus has begun, he will also complete (Rev 22). The Spirit is our guarantee (Eph 1:14). There is coming a day when all the ransomed church of God will be saved to sin no more (1 John 3:2). Turn to the Lord now and encourage others around you to do the same, that God’s purposes kingdom on earth may come as it is in heaven.
[i]We looked at this more carefully in the previous sermon, linking the healing of the lame man with the kingdom expectations of Isaiah 32:5-6 and the work of the Servant in Isaiah 52:13; 53:4-5, 11 together with how Jesus fulfills these expectations in Matthew 8:16-17 and then in the mission of the church in Acts.
[ii]That doesn’t mean God is sinful. We know from other places in Scripture that God cannot be tempted with evil (Jas 1:13). It also doesn’t mean that the Jews and these lawless Gentiles are not responsible. They very much are, and Peter tells them to repent in verse 38. God is able to ordain evil through human acts and not be blamed for the evil. See especially Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; 13:27.
[iii]E.g., Isa 55:7; Jer 3:12, 14, 22; Hos 14:1; Joel 2:12-13; Zech 1:1-6; Mal 3:7.
[iv]E.g., Jesus enters the stage like Moses who leads the people through the wilderness, only Jesus defeats the devil in the wilderness and then stands on the Mount to give the true interpretation of the Law, while on his way to save his people from slavery to sin (Matt 1:18-25; 4-7). The Law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). Moses was faithful in God’s house as a servant, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son (Heb 3:5-6).
[v]Cf. also Gen 7:4; Exod 32:32-33; Deut 29:20; Pss 69:28; 109:13; Isa 43:25.
[vi]Peter O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, WBC (Dallas: Word, 2000), 125.
[vii]See the discussion in BDAG, s.v. “exaleiphw.”
[viii]Also the pattern of repentance-forgiveness-Spirit in Acts 2:38 parallels repentance-forgiveness-refreshment in Acts 3:19-20, suggesting that the Spirit brings the refreshment. For further discussion, see Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts, ECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 215.