Astonishing! Wh-wh-what do we make of this? The puzzled Jewish leaders put their heads together in Acts 4.
A crippled man had been healed in the previous chapter and it had caused quite the stir. There was wonder, amazement, and questions, and Peter was not one to leave things unsaid. First, he deflected the crowd’s praise: “Why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?” (Acts 3:12). Second, he set the record straight: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus …” (Acts 3:13). Third, he told them who Jesus is: the Holy and Righteous One, the Author of life, risen from the dead, foretold by the holy prophets, sent to you for your blessing.
It wasn’t long before the “priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2). They locked up Peter and John until the next day when “their rulers and elders and scribes” gathered together for the interrogation, trying their level-best to get down to the bottom of this healing: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7)
It was Jesus, of course. “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well” (Acts 4:10). And Peter, again, took the opportunity to explain:
This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:11–12)
Then came the shock and marvel, and the presumed stutter of what it all meant. The boldness of Peter and John at first baffled these Jewish leaders. How can these men untrained in our rabbinical classrooms speak so freely and forcefully an interpretation of the Isaianic cornerstone theme found in Psalm 118:22? Peter and John should not have been able to read the Hebrew Scriptures that way, not to mention testify to the deity of Jesus of Nazareth from the Scriptures, which is precisely what they were doing. The exclusivity of salvation was another Isaianic theme, about Yahweh, and Peter and John applied it to Jesus. Astonishment was the apt response, that is, until the Jewish leaders connected the dots: “And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
Peter and John “had been with Jesus,” meaning that Jesus had taught them how to read Isaiah and the Psalms, and practically “everything in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (see Luke 24:44–45). Jesus had taught his apostles how to understand his identity revealed in the pages of Scriptures. This is fundamental to the apostolic witness, worthy of the church’s devotion and defense (see Acts 2:42; Jude 3). Quoting the Nicene Creed isn’t required for saving faith, but recognizing the Jesus described in that creed is. Click To Tweet
And this is where we must start as pastors considering the question: How do I teach my people about eternal generation?
Petrine Instinct for Athanasian Embrace
More basic here is the question of teaching your people Christology, and whether such teaching is extracurricular or central to their discipleship. Should we start a mid-week course about Jesus’s identity for Christians who want the meat? Or might we take our cues from the New Testament where there is no such thing as a Christian apart from a robust embrace of who Jesus is?
If the latter is the case, and I believe it is, then we are free and encouraged to start courses on any theological topic we choose, so long as we don’t regulate Christology as an accelerated study for the mature among us. We must remember how all this got started, after all, that what makes Christians remarkable is the remarkableness of Christ, and every Christian should know what that is. Every Christian, young and old, new and seasoned, should know the identity of Jesus, including most basically that Jesus is God and man, and that as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity Jesus’s person is neither blended with the Father’s nor is his essence divided. The person of the Father is distinct, and the person of the Son is another, but their divinity is one, their glory equal, their majesty eternal. Our peoples’ embrace of the Athanasian Creed, among others, must follow a Petrine instinct—what I’m calling a working-class passion to speak rightly of Jesus. Let us start here, brother-pastors.
We want our people to know Jesus, and that knowing Jesus is necessary for their salvation. “One cannot be saved without believing it firmly and faithfully.” Quoting the Nicene Creed isn’t required for saving faith, but recognizing the Jesus described in that creed is. Show him to them.
Three Liturgical Strategies
Practically, there are three strategies we might employ, each one liturgical.
In your Sunday gatherings, preach the Bible’s testimony of Jesus. Speak of him every chance you get, from every text, in every sermon, and make clear the relevance of his person for the challenges of today. I think of Matthew 14 when Jesus walked on the water. Do you know what made all the difference for the disciples beaten by the waves, or for Peter, who, attempting to walk, saw the wind and grew afraid? It’s that Jesus is completely God and completely human, and thus he can reach out his flesh-and-blood arm to save Peter from drowning, and then Peter (and those in the boat) “worship him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (see Matthew 14:22–33). And Jesus, who has always been the Son, coeternal and coequal to the Father, now incarnate, receives the worship. In your Sunday gatherings, praise Jesus as the Son of God begotten from the Father before all ages. Click To Tweet
In your Sunday gatherings, praise Jesus as the Son of God begotten from the Father before all ages. Praise him by stating that together, loudly. It’s my joy to be part of a church that recites the creeds in corporate worship, the second Sunday of every month. We don’t pause from our “regularly scheduled programming” to teach on eternal generation, but we declare its truth in between our singing, with hands still raised and voices belting.
In your Sunday gatherings, pray to the Father and to the Son, with the Spirit’s help, and know which person you’re speaking to. The best way we teach that the Father and Son are distinct persons is by praying personally to them distinctly. We might imagine the Father invisible, dwelling in “unapproachable light, who no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). Pray to him as such. And then we might imagine the Son seated on his throne, at the right hand of the Father, in his glorified flesh, skin and bones like our own, but perfect (see Hebrews).