Peter first had follow in order to lead: to learn, in order to teach. What strikes us most in Acts of the Apostles is the way this man emerges from the often-unflattering portrait of the Gospels to become the first leader of God’s universal Church.
After Peter heals the man in the beginning of Acts 3, it is not merely the healing that amazes his opponents. It is, rather, the ability of John and Peter to teach and persuade:
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man that had been healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. (Acts 4:13–15)
Two things are at work in the ministry of Peter and John: their actions and their words. Each reinforces the other. Both amaze. Both attest to a great power working within and through them. As we are told in Acts 4:6, “Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit,” answers his inquisitors. These “uneducated, common men” are shaming the wise, the rich, and the powerful with their wisdom and gifts of healing. Something new is at work in the world.
Peter fills many roles in Acts, the first half of which is occupied by the details of his ministry. He is, at various times
- Leading the apostles
- Conducting a healing ministry
- Preaching the risen Christ
- Establishing churches
- Carrying on the work of the prophets
- Being filled with the Spirit, and manifesting “signs and wonders” along with the other apostles (Acts 5:12).
All of these roles, and the miracles that accompany them, show the power of a Spirit at work in Peter, but what is the message we take from it? Let’s look at three miracles to see what they tell us.
Two healings and a conversion provide us with a deeper understanding of Peter’s ministry, and ours. The healing of the paralytic Aeneas (9:32-35) and the resurrection of the disciple Tabitha (36-43) convey volumes in few words. The account of Tabitha is told in far more detail, but both are packed with enough information for us to draw some conclusions.
The name of Aeneas calls to mind the hero of Virgil’s epic, and suggests that we are dealing with a Roman, a Greek, or perhaps a Hellenized Jew. The lack of detail about his life suggests he’s a man of no particular significance. Tabitha, however, is an important woman in the community, and the description of her burial preparations suggest she is a woman of great wealth as well.
The paralytic is healed and Tabitha is raised: two miracles evoking the ministry of Jesus. These are immediately follow by the calling of Cornelius, “a centurion of the Italian Cohort.” The story of Cornelius takes up all of chapter 10, as he is called by the Spirit and received by Peter. As this call is happened, Peter receives a vision showing him “all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.” He hears a voice telling him to “rise … kill and eat.” The message disturbs and confuses him because it contradicts the purity law binding upon all Jews.
With the call of Cornelius revealed to him, Peter understands the meaning of the vision more fully. It is a meaning that draws in the previous two healing accounts. Poor, rich; male, female; Gentile, Jew; lame, healthy; weak, powerful, soldier, civilian: all are one in Christ Jesus. As he says, “Truly, I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34)
And as he speaks, the Spirit that had been prompting others to seek Peter and follow Christ, descends upon them in fullness. The Jews are amazed to see the Gentiles receive grace along with the chosen ones of God. Peter goes with all of them, “making no distinction” at the command of the Spirit. (Acts 11:12) The Jews hear and understand: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:18) The promise of the kingdom is opened up to all.
The issue comes to a head at Council of Jerusalem in Chapter 15, and at the same moment Peter vanishes from the Acts of the Apostles. His final words are the decision to welcome to the gentiles into the faith without forcing them to obey the Jewish laws on diet, purity, and circumcision. It is a simple statement: “We believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:6-11) It is a firm and final decision that calls to mind the decisions of his successors down through the millennia. The fisherman who learned and student who followed is now the master who teaches.
And then Peter is gone. He left us only two epistles, and 265 successors, each of them teachers like him, each continuing the work of the Lord.