When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. (NIV)
Acts 13:48 is a verse that has drawn much attention both as a proof text in support of a theology (e.g. Steele, Thomas The Five Points of Calvinism pp 33, 35, 60; Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion Book III Ch. 24) and more specifically, the doctrine of unconditional election. This verse is often pointed to as “the divine side of evangelism” (Bible Exposition Commentary), saying that one of the key words, variously translated as Ordained or Appointed, connotes those who are written in the Book of Life (Phil 4:3, etc.) and destined to everlasting life, saved from perdition.
This same verse which is said to emphasize God’s sovereignty in election and salvation is also many times is seen as a mandate to evangelization so as to draw people to our Savior. Greg Laurie (Growing Your Church Through Evangelism and Outreach pp. 139), for example, says that by evangelism people must be persuaded to come to the work of the Spirit. Sometimes, he points out, two invitations are necessary in order to give people an opportunity to make a choice for Christ.
In the debate of continuous interest–Calvin versus Arminius–this same verse is said support both the monergistic and synergistic points of view. The Calvinist reads it as a declaration of the election of certain of humankind to salvation and the Arminian agrees. Those who interpret scripture through the Arminian-Wesleyian framework say yes, individuals are appointed for life eternal and that this appointment is made by God but, contrary to the Calvinist position, this gift must be received by a man or woman in order to be effectual.
Can this Word of God be rightly divided in such a way that it means everything that is attributed to it? Or, when placed back into its larger context and read in its original Greek form, does it lean heavily to one side or the other. The purpose of this study will be to help you decide the meaning of this verse and how it affects our reading of other verses and passages in God’s revelation to us. Though you may be tempted to read this simply to find affirmation of your particular theological framework, I urge you to approach this (and the study of all Scripture) prayerfully and with a heart open to movement and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The Lukan Corpus
Proof-texting can be a disingenuous practice if the verse or passage that one chooses to utilize as support for a specific doctrine or practice has a different meaning when it is extracted from the larger context in which it was written. In order to properly evaluate a section of Scripture, it is critical that we locate that section within its surrounding material. Examining Acts 13:48 then requires us to look at the verse in the context of its immediate pericope, Luke’s description of Paul and Barnabas’ ministry in Pisidian Antioch, then the entire book of Acts and finally, the corpus of Luke’s writing, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.
If we read Luke/Acts with the common focus of its historicity it is easy to miss the emphasis that the author places on the way of salvation and the work of the Holy Spirit. The progress (cf. Liefeld, Interpreting the Book of Acts, pp 41-42) of the gospel is recorded in a series of summary verses:
Acts 2:41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
Acts 2:47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Acts 4:4 But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.
Acts 5:14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.
Acts 6:7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
Acts 9:31 Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.
Acts 9:42 This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.
Acts 11:21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
Acts 12:24 But the word of God continued to increase and spread.
Acts 13:48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.
Acts 16:5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.
Acts 19:20 In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
Acts 28:31 Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.
Salvation is a major theme in both Luke and Acts (Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian). In Luke, the verb “save” appears some seventeen times and thirteen times in Acts. “Savior” appears twice in each book and “salvation” shows up seven times in Acts (cf. soteria in 13:47-48) and two Greek words for “salvation” appear six times in Luke. In Luke the emphasis is appropriately placed on Jesus as the one who brought (was) God’s salvation. The focus in Acts is the extent of this salvation, open to all classes of people — Gentiles, sinners, and the disenfranchised across all supposed geographic boundaries. Many Jews believed but the gospel did not end there; it went afar into the Gentile world where it was gladly received. Intertwined with these themes we find the related word “grace” in its theological sense of God’s work in an individual.
Liefeld (ibid. pp 93) suggests a further theme that runs through the twin volumes that is easily overlooked, the sovereignty of God and divine necessity. Necessity is defined as “what must be done to complete God’s sovereign plan.” Luke’s use of the word dei (“it is necessary”, “it must”) is frequent enough to warrant notice of a thread of divine intention running through the books. God is at the foundation of the kerygmatic impulse that propels Acts that finds two matching ideas that should not be separated: divine providence and the summons to obedience. As Fernando says (Fernando, NIVAC:Acts, pp 343) “Those who do seek after God , then, do not do so entirely by their own efforts but by the enlightening of their minds and the energizing of their wills by the Holy Spirit.” An example of these ideas is seen in the conversion of Lydia where the gospel message is first presented to this successful woman and God then “opened here heart to respond to Paul’s message. (Acts 16:14).” An evangelistic principle is extracted from the Lukan examples. There is an interplay between human initiative and divine quickening which leads us to understand our responsibility and emphasizes that it is God who ultimately gives the results (ibid. pp 451) [cf. vv 26:18, 29].
Context Within Acts
It is generally recognized that Acts divides into two parts; the first (Chs 1 to 12) half having to do with Peter and the beginnings of the Church within the Holy Land and the second (Chs 13 to 28), with Paul and the movement of the gospel from Antioch to Rome. Recording Paul’s missionary journeys, the verse of interest occurs within the context of his first missionary adventure. To outline the immediate context of chapter 13 we can utilize clear breaks in the movement of narrative as our guide.
- Vv 1 to 3 – Paul and Barnabas are commissioned and sent
- Vv 4 to 12 – Ministry on Cyprus
- Vv 13 to 52 – Ministry in Pisidian Antioch
- vv 13 – 41 : Preaching Ministry
- vv 42 – 52 : The Effect of Paul’s Sermon
The nearest context of interest in this narrative locates Paul and his companions ministering in Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath they enter the synagogue and await the movement of the Spirit. They don’t wait long as the synagogue leadership asks them to share a “message of encouragement.” (v 15) Paul delivers much more than they bargained for. He rehearses the history of God’s dealings with Israel and now His movement to the Gentiles leading up the death and resurrection of the Savior Christ. Paul proclaims the good news that forgiveness of sins through Jesus is available to “everyone who believes.” (v 39) The power of the gospel message and dire warning that Paul issues at the close garners him a second invitation to preach on the next Sabbath.
Paul returns to the synagogue to find nearly the entire population of the city gathered to “hear hear the word of the Lord.” (v 44) This surge in attendance did not sit well with the Jews who abused Paul and the gospel message that he delivers. Paul, never one to cower in the face of a challenge, speaks “boldly” (v 46) pointing out that the Jews were the first to receive the revelation of the justification available through Jesus but, he continues “since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life” (v46) Paul is guided to take the message to a new people. When the Gentiles hear their place in God’s plan “they were glad and honored the word of the Lord;” resulting in their belief. This movement of the Spirit caused a stir in the whole region resulting in further abuse by the Jews driving Paul’s band on to Iconium. “The disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” (v52)
A careful reading of the verse being examined finds that it is a necessary counterbalance to the emphasis on human will and choice that precedes it in the passage. It does not abrogate the previous references but reinforces the the divine imperative that regenerates the human soul and makes repentance and belief possible. “All those who believed “were appointed for eternal life” It is never merely a person’s own choice that saves them, it is always God’s love and mercy.” (Fernando, NIVAC) Williams has a similar view of the verse (NIBC) “The idea of appointment in this verse is not meant in a restrictive sense. The thought is not of God limiting salvation to the few, but of extending it to the many, in contrast to the exclusiveness of the Jews. And of course this divine choice did not obviate the need for personal faith.”
Irving Jensen has said, “Just as a great door swings on small hinges, so the important theological statements of the Bible often depend upon even the smallest words, such as preposition and articles.” (Jensen, Enjoy Your Bible) A single word is often at the center of the life giving doctrines of the Bible and, in order to understand them, we must study the specific words in their original context. We begin then by examining Acts 13:48 in its Greek form:
Acts 13:48 akouonta de ta.eqnh ecairon kai. edoxazon ton logon tou/ kuriou kai.episteusan osoi hsan tetagmenoi eij zwhn aiwnion\
akouonta de ta.eqnh ecairon
And hearing the nations rejoiced
kai. edoxazon ton logon tou/ kuriou
and glorified [honored] the word of the Lord
kai.episteusan osoi hsan
and believed as many as were
tetagmenoi eij zwhn aiwnion\
having been disposed to life eternal
The word of most interest to this discussion is tetagmenoi (tetagmenoi), a form of the verb tassw (tasso). Before parsing the verb, let’s establish the root definition. [Highlighted phrases and sentences added to point to references of the verse being examined.]
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament – Gerhard Kittel
The basic definition of this word means to appoint, to order, with such nuances as to arrange, to determine, to set in place, to establish, and (in the middle form) to fix for oneself.
LXX: senses are to appoint, to prohibit, to ordain, to set, to draw up, and middle to command, to make disposition, to fix, to turn one’s gaze, to set one’s heart, and to make.
NT: in Acts 15:2 – to determine / Acts 28:23 to appoint / Mt 28:16 to order. Christians are ordained to eternal life in Acts 13:48; conferring of status rather than foreordination is the point.
The NIV Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words – Verlyn D. Verbrugge
tasso – Arrange, appoint / protasso – command, appoint / diatasso – command, order / diatage – ordinance, direction / epitasso – command, order / epitage – order, injunction
This word is common in classical Greek. Its first meaning is military: draw up troops (or ships) in battle array. From this verb it came to mean direct or a appoint someone to a task, arrange, setup , put things or plans in order. All these verbs and nouns imply an acknowledged authority and power residing in the person from whom decisions or directives issue.
In the LXX the words in this word group are used with both God and humans as the arranging or directing agents.
NT: tasso is used 8 times and means some order or arrangement that has been made. It denotes God’s appointment of the “authorities that exist” (Rom 13:1), of Paul’s career assignment (Acts 22:10) and of individual persons’ “appointed” for eternal life through believing the gospel (Acts 13:48). In the middle Voice it means to make a mutual arrangement [Taxamenoi] (Acts 28:23)
Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains – J.P. Louw & E.Nida
37.96 τάσσωa; ὁρίζωb; ἀναδείκνυμιb; τίθημιb: to assign someone to a particular task, function, or role—‘to appoint, to designate, to assign, to give a task to.’
τάσσωa : ἐπίστευσαν ὅσοι ἦσαν τεταγμένοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον ‘those who had been designated for eternal life became believers’ Ac 13.48. Though τάσσω in Ac 13.48 has sometimes been interpreted as meaning ‘to choose,’ there seems to be far more involved than merely a matter of selection, since a relationship is specifically assigned.
ὁρίζωb : ὁ ὡρισμένος ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ κριτής ‘the one designated by God as judge’ Ac 10.42.
ἀναδείκνυμιb : ἀνέδειξεν ὁ κύριος ἑτέρους ἑβδομήκοντα δύο ‘the Lord appointed another seventy-two men’ Lk 10.1.
τίθημιb: ἔθηκα ὑμᾶς ἵνα ὑμεῖς ὑπάγητε καὶ καρπὸν φέρητε ‘I appointed you to go and bear much fruit’ Jn 15.16.
A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature – Frederick Danker / Walter Bauer
- To bring about an order of things by arranging, arrange, put in place
- Of an authority structure passive
- Of a person: Put into a specific position, used with a preposition. (in the passive, belong to, be classed among those possessing) (Acts 13:48) Mt 8:9 Lk 7:8 1 Cor 16:15
When we parse the verb, we discover that it can be read in two forms. This is because “in the present tense, the middle and passive forms of the verb are identical” (Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek). Accordingly, many lexicons and other language tools will show two parsings side by side:
1. participle perfect passive nominative masculine plural
2. participle perfect middle nominative masculine plural
A little grammar to begin that you can skip if Greek is second nature to you. A participle (in English and Greek, a verbal adjective) has the characteristics of both a verb and an adjective. It has a tense (present, aorist, perfect) and a voice (active, middle, passive) like a verb and as an adjective it agrees with the word that it modifies in case, number, and gender. The tense describes the type of action denoted:
- present – describes a continuous action
- aorist – presents an undefined action – the participle describes the action without commenting on the nature of the action
- perfect – describes a completed action with present effects
The voice refers to the relationship between the subject and the verb.
- active – the subject does the action of the verb – Bob threw the ball. Threw is active because Bill did it.
- passive – the subject receives the action of the verb – Bob was hit by the ball. Was hit is passive because Bill was hit.
- middle – the action of the verb in some way affects the subject – The closest we can come with Bob and the ball is Bob hits himself with the ball.
It is an important footnote to this discussion to note that Luke is aware of and uses a variety of Greek words having the same meaning as the verb in question (appointed, ordained). See his usage in Luke 2:23, 10:1 and Acts 3:20, 6:3, 10:42, 12:21, 14:23, 15:12, 17:31, 22:10, 22:14, 26:16 & 28:23.
[Note that the discussion of middle versus passive voice is also a component of the Cessationist debate over the spiritual gift of tongues. The verb that Paul selects is pausontai which can also be parsed in the middle or passive voice. In 1 Cor 13:8, the verse can be read to indicate that the gift of tongues will cease or the gift of tongues will cease in and of itself.]
As I stated at the outset, the purpose of this study is not to present to you a conclusive reading of this important verse. What I have done is survey the scholarship and presented my findings to you in an orderly manner so that you can prayerfully decide what the appropriate reading and application of this verse is. Do not allow your theology to be determined solely on the word of others and a proof-text list. God has provided his revelation so that each of us can determine, given the entire scope of Scripture, the appropriate rendering of his Word and the aspects of His character and action that each reveals. Proof-texting that inappropriately “helicopters” in (as my beloved Dr. Carroll used to say) and pulls a verse out of its surrounding context is an incorrect way of dividing the Holy Word.
God bless you all in your study.
A fine analysis of this passage by William Birch can be found here.