Perplexed By Acts 13:48?

Many Christians are perplexed by Acts 13:48 which states, “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (NKJV). They can’t reconcile the phrase “appointed to eternal life” with the free offer of the gospel that is suggested by such passages as “the Lord is … not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Seeking help, they turn to a few other versions to see if they might shed some light on this puzzler. They quickly discover to their chagrin that all the common translations say more or less the same thing. The KJV renders it, “as many as had been ordained to eternal life believed.” The NASB reads, “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” The ESV says, “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” The NIV gives us, “all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” The New Living Translation paraphrases it thus, “all who were chosen for eternal life became believers.” It is difficult to find an English translation that doesn’t render it in some such fashion.

So now they find themselves at an impasse. How are they going to find the right way out? Men usually do one of two things at this point. They either retain the free offer of the gospel and toss Acts 13:48 into the paradox box, justifying this step with the claim that there are some mysteries of God that simply cannot be understood, election being one of them. Or they reject the free offer of the gospel and embrace the common English translation of Acts 13:48 at face value, essentially embracing the Reformed view of salvation that man believes the gospel because God has already chosen him and saved him.

But there is no reason to take either of these paths. I am convinced that this translation is just plain wrong. While our common English translations are generally serviceable, on occasion they are mistaken. And this is one of those passages. This is an example of a dominant theological idea making its way into the translation in the same way that dominant theological ideas make their way into commentaries and books. Consider the following points which will lead toward a very different translation.

First of all, there are no true paradoxes or contradictions in the Bible. The Bible is designed to reveal the character and ways of God, not conceal them. And he is a God of order, not a God of disorder. Therefore, every apparent contradiction in our theology or doctrine involves a human error, usually in our understanding, but occasionally in our translation.

Secondly, when we bring the above principle to bear on the problem at hand—the contradiction we see between the free offer of the gospel and the Reformed election of Acts 13:48—we are forced to conclude that either the free offer of the gospel is in error or the common translation of Acts 13:48 is in error. For me this is a no brainer. I side with the vast array of passages in the Bible which present the free offer of the gospel to all men. I won’t, I can’t, shunt them aside for one difficult verse.

Thirdly, the Greek in the original does not in any way, shape, or form demand the common translation. The line in question runs, ἐπίστευσαν ὅσοι ἦσαν τεταγμένοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον , “they believed — as many as — they were — self set/set — to — life — eternal.” The form τεταγμένοι (tetagmenoi) is a middle/passive participle, and we must determine from the context and the nature of the case whether we ought to translate this form as a middle or as a passive. As a passive it would be transated something along the line of were set, were appointed, were arranged, were determined (by someone else). As a middle it would be translated something along the line of set themselves, appointed themselves (took it upon themselves), arranged themselves, determined. Both senses are common in Koine Greek and Classical Greek. This exact form is regularly used of armies arranging themselves on their battle field in their formations.

Given the conflict between the passive translation and the free offer of the gospel, not to mention the clear teaching of Scripture that election follows faith (2 Thess. 2:13, 1 Pet. 1:2), we find a strong argument for the middle translation.

Further, in 1 Cor. 16:15 we have a precedent for a middle translation of the same verb, “they addicted themselves to the ministry” (KJV) and “they devoted themselves to the ministry” (NKJV, NASB, ESV). Here we find the active form with a reflexive pronoun, ἔταξαν ἑαυτούς, “they set themselves,” which is essentially the equivalent of the middle. Following this train of thought, we could translate Acts 13:48 “As many as devoted themselves to eternal life believed” or “as many as set themselves to eternal life believed.”

And now we have a thought that rings true with Scripture and experience. God everywhere in the New Testament holds out eternal life as a motive to believe the gospel. In Acts 13:48 we find men who take this motive to heart and believe. And in my own experience I can testify that it was the offer of eternal life that led me to faith in Christ. Only after I believed did the sin issue and the glory-of-God issue explode upon my heart and conscience.

Fourthly, this understanding of Acts 13:48 is in keeping with the spirit of a number of passages in the Bible: “everyone who prepares his heart to seek God” (2 Chron. 30:19), “such as set their heart to seek the Lord” (2 Chron. 11:16), “he did not prepare his heart to seek the Lord” (2 Chron. 12:14), “the people had not directed their hearts to the God of their fathers” (2 Chron. 20:33), “prepare your hearts for the Lord” (1 Sam 7:3), “fix their heart toward you” (1 Chron. 29:18), and “a generation that did not set its heart aright” (Psalm 78:8). So we understand that Acts 13:48 addresses the issue of men turning their hearts toward God and his wonderful promise of eternal life.

“Eyes wide open, brain engaged, heart on fire”

Lee W. Brainard

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