Before unpacking this passage lets be reminded of a couple rules for proper hermeneutics (method of interpretation).
- Didactic texts set doctrine and narratives help inform doctrine. Narratives are meant to tell a story, not teach foundational theological beliefs. Acts 13 is a narrative and though it can help us better understand our doctrinal beliefs it should not be foundational to develop our systematic.
- Text without context is a pretext for proof-text. We have to look at what is happening in the text in order to better understand the possible intent of the author. With this in mind let’s look at the context of Acts 13.
Imagine if the New Testament was written in North America during the civil rights movement. The “historical context” would involve the tensions between blacks and whites and therefore would affect the author’s choice of words within that social dynamic. Likewise, in the first century there is a dynamic that needs to be understood in order to capture the author’s intentions. Consider the fact that the “elect people” (Israelites) were not believing the gospel while the “non-elect people” (all kinds from other nations) were believing the gospel. The big debate of that day was whether God had included (grafted in) the non-elect people (the other nations). “Has God appointed those barbarian non-elect half-breeds and uncircumcised dogs for eternal life,” is the question of the Jewish leaders in that day. That is the point being debated in the first century world. The debate is not whether God has elected to irresistibly save some individuals and leave the rest in hopelessness. Those who wish to prove their individualized perspective assume that meaning on the text.
Let’s consider some phrases in the context of Acts 13 that clearly indicates the intention of the author. Notice in this speech, Paul is speaking to both Israelites and Gentiles. He begins by explaining the national election of Israel and the purposes God fulfilled through the Jewish peoples.
16 Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: “Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! 17 The God of the people of Israel chose our ancestors (national election of Israel); he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt; with mighty power he led them out of that country; 18 for about forty years he endured their conduct in the wilderness; 19 and he overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to his people as their inheritance.20 All this took about 450 years.
From verse 14 we know the apostles are speaking in a Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath and verse 16 specifies the audience includes Gentiles who are already believers in the God of Israel and desire to worship Him. Many God-fearing Gentiles genuinely believed in God and had not yet grown calloused in the religiosity of the Pharisaical teachings. No one could rightly describe these God fearing Gentiles as totally disabled, hardened or spiritually dead individuals in need of an irresistible calling.
Granted, these “Gentiles who worship God” had not yet come to believe the gospel, but that would be because they had not yet heard the gospel. How could they believe unless someone preaches, as Paul inquires in Romans 10:14? These worshipping Gentiles are ready to receive the mystery of the gospel being brought by inspiration through the holy apostles (Eph. 3:1-10). One might even say they are “disposed or prepared” to hear the truth being brought to them on this day. Further, one might rightly argue that God had already set his favor upon these Gentiles and “appointed them to eternal life” (Acts 13:48) because they have a humble and contrite heart that has believed in what revelation they have been given (Is. 66:2). As the Psalmist clearly explains,
“Who are those who fear the Lord? He will show them the path they should choose.” -Psalms 25:12
“After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. 21 Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. 22 After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’
23 “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised. 24 Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. 25 As John was completing his work, he said: ‘Who do you suppose I am? I am not the one you are looking for. But there is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’
26 “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to US that this message of salvation has been sent. (Acts 13:16-26 emphasis added)
Paul summarizes God’s purpose of electing Israel when he states, “God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus…it is to US that this message of salvation has been sent.” God has chosen to bring His Messiah and His Message through Israel. There is nothing said about God choosing to irresistibly save individuals of Israel, but only his purpose in blessing the world through Israel by bringing the LIGHT.
ANTICIPATED OBJECTION: But, someone may object arguing that in order for God to accomplish the purpose of bringing his truth to the world through Israel, doesn’t He have to save the individuals he chooses to bring that truth? Yes. Paul is a great example of this. God used powerfully persuasive means to convince Paul to change his will (blinding light). Like Jonah (big fish) before him this divinely appointed messenger was in rebellion and unwilling to go the “non-elect people” with the truth of God. So, what does God do? He stepped in to persuade (through outwardly persuasive means) these men to believe His message so as to ensure they go into the world to proclaim it with authority. In other words, He elects them and persuades them so that His purpose in electing Israel would stand.
Is God obligated to do this for everyone?
Is God obligated to physically show his scars to the doubters, as he did for Thomas?
Of course not!
KEY POINT: Proof that God uses external miraculous means to convince the wills of his elect messengers from Israel to take the message to the non-elect nations of the world does NOT prove that God elects to make certain individuals believe their message by inwardly irresistible means. This is a foundational error leading to the Calvinistic misunderstanding of scripture.
The text continues in verse 38 to show this historical context:
38 “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39 Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38-39 emphasis added)
Notice that righteousness is said to be unattainable through the law, but does that prove it is equally unattainable through faith? Calvinists presume that believing in the One who fulfilled the law for us is as equally unattainable as fulfilling the demands of the law ourselves. This is nowhere supported in the pages of scripture. If you ask a Calvinist to find a text that teaches the premise that lost men are unable to willingly respond to the powerful Holy Spirit wrought gospel appeal they will have a list of proof texts, but notice that not one of them actually mentions the gospel.
Could it be that the gospel, and the mysteries contained therein, were being fulfilled at the time the scriptures were recorded? Is it possible, therefore, that the gospel, having not been completed and sent into the world was not drawing or enabling faith prior to Christ being lifted up? (John 12:32) Maybe the enabling, drawing, spiritual, gracious NEED of the natural, lost, unregenerate man is not met until the soul piercing sword of truth is sent to all peoples (Matt. 28:16-20) and the Holy Spirit is poured out like fire (Acts 2)?
The gospel is certainly stronger in accomplishing its purpose to make an appeal for reconciliation than the fallen nature of the one needing that appeal. If not, every unbeliever who perishes burns eternally with the excuse, “The gospel was not sufficient for me.”
Paul continues in verse 40 saying,
“Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you.”
41 “‘Look, you scoffers,
wonder and perish,
for I am going to do something in your days
that you would never believe,
even if someone told you.’”
Israel’s unbelief is predicted, as their hearts had grown calloused after continual rebellion. If there is any doctrine of “total inability” this is it. It is the judicial hardening of Israel, which is NOT a condition of the heart from birth as the Calvinist presumes. In Acts 28 Paul lays out this clear distinction:
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’
28 “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”
The apostle explicitly spells out the ability of those who have NOT yet grown calloused. “Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts…they will listen.” Anyone who has been involved with mission work can testify to the fact that taking the gospel to areas where it has not been preached before is typically meet with much more reception than the gospel-saturated regions. Why is this? People who reject God’s revelation grow calloused to it over time. They are not born in this condition, mind you, but may grow into this hardened and disabled state through continual rebellion.
This is most likely why Jesus uses a child as an example of what we must become like if we are to enter His kingdom (Matt. 18:3). If all are all equally born under God’s wrath and without the ability to respond then why would Jesus use a random child as any example? Isn’t he just as depraved and hardened from birth as the 80-year-old Israelite according to the Calvinistic system? The difference is that the child has not yet grown calloused. He is born sinful but not hardened.
The text continues:
42 As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. 43 When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.
44 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.45 When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him.
46 Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.
Sound familiar? This is exactly what he speaks of in Acts 28:27-28 in reflection of Israel’s becoming calloused to the revelation of God. The elect people were hardened because they were saturated with revelation, so the revelation is sent to the non-elect ones. God “cuts off” Israel and “grafts in” all nations of the world (ref to Rom. 11). This is what “the election” is referencing throughout scripture: God’s election to bring his special revelation (through elect messengers), first to the Jew and then to all other nations.
Notice in verse 46 that Luke regards the Jews rejection of the gospel as THEIR OWN consideration of being unworthy for eternal life (not God’s rejection of them), which is the antithesis to verse 48 where the Gentiles belief in the gospel is proof of THEIR being prepared or “appointed” to eternal life (i.e. grafted in). So, in the same way Israel considered themselves unworthy for eternal life by their rebellion to God’s revelation thus leading to their being cut off, now the Gentiles, who were NOT hardened in like manner, but who were in large part open to hearing and believing the gospel truth, are being grafted in by faith. (See Romans 11)
Now, knowing this context where Israel is hardened and thus unable to see the truth, and the gospel is being taken to all the nations of the world (referred to generally as “Gentiles”), we read:
47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us:
“‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”
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 13:47-48)
There are a number of approaches to understanding the intention of this passage within this historical context. Dr. Brian Abasciano, a notable Greek and New Testament scholar, writes, “The best understanding of ‘tasso’ [appointed] in Acts 13:48 is that it refers to Gentiles who were ‘in position for eternal life’ — ‘ready for eternal life’ — or even ‘intent on obtaining eternal life’ (particularly in contrast to the Jews of the same episode who opposed Paul and rejected the gospel, and so who judged themselves unworthy of eternal life [Acts 13:46]), and that the most accurate translation of the phrase in question would be something like: ‘as many as were disposed to eternal life believed’ or ‘as many as were aligned for eternal life believed’ or ‘as many as were positioned for eternal life believed.‘” (More of Dr. Abasciano’s grammatical perspective can be viewed HERE.)
Some Gentiles, like Lydia or Cornelius recorded in scripture, were referred to as “worshippers of God” or “God fearing” gentiles even before they heard the gospel and believed. It is likely that Luke intends to contrast these God-fearing Gentiles (prepared to come to faith in large numbers) to the self-righteous Jews who have grown self hardened in their stubborn religiosity (thus fitting themselves for destruction). (Acts 28:27; Romans 9:22)
Most scholars agree that God likely showed mercy to those who had even a mustard seed sized faith based on their limit revelation prior to the coming of the gospel message (i.e. Rahab). In other words, people who died prior to Christ’s coming, but who, like Cornelius, genuinely feared the Lord, would have been credited as righteous (i.e. appointed to eternal life) even though they never had opportunity to hear and believe the gospel. After all, God did promise Abram to “bless those who bless you” (Gen. 12:3). Those not even of the seed of Abram may receive the blessing of His mercy by grace through faith in the promise.
Dr. F.L. Forlines reflects on the teaching of notable scholar, F.F. Bruce, regarding the potential meaning of this text, “F. F. Bruce says that the ‘simple monotheism of Jewish synagogue worship’ and Jewish ethics attracted many Gentiles who were not ready to become full proselyte Jews. Some of these Gentiles went to synagogue and became very familiar with Jewish prayers and readings from the Septuagint. Others even observed Sabbath and abstained from certain foods. Thus Bruce argues, ‘That the first Gentile to hear and accept the gospel should be a God-fearer is the more significant because, as we shall see later in Acts, it was such God-fearers who formed the nucleus of the Christian community in one city after another in the course of Paul’s missionary activity.’ These Gentiles who were influenced by Jewish thought, but chose not to become proselytes, are referred to as devout men or God-fearers. If some of the Jews were saved by faith before the coming of Jesus, it follows that some of the Gentile proselytes and God-fearers were also saved by faith. I think that any serious study of Acts must keep this observation in mind. I am not suggesting that all of these God-fearers were saved prior to hearing that Jesus the Messiah had come. There would have been some who would not have taken matters that seriously. However, I do believe that some were saved by believing the redemptive revelation of God given in the Old Testament before they heard the gospel message. That possibility no longer exists. But it did exist during this transition period. The Gentiles who had been influenced by the Jews as they had migrated to different parts of the Roman Empire would not have found the concept of individual salvation as distinguished from corporate salvation as objectionable as the Jews did. I think this could account for much of the early success in reaching Gentiles with the gospel. Now, let us see how this viewpoint helps us understand Acts 13:48. Verse 43 mentions “proselytes.” They were among those who were persuaded by Paul and Barnabas “to continue in the grace of God.” On the next sabbath day “almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God” (verse 44). The Jews were envious of the success that Paul and Barnabas were having and spoke against them (verse 46). Paul and Barnabas, then, turned to the Gentiles. When this move was made to the Gentiles, it is said, “And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (verse 48, KJV).
The Greek word for “ordained” is tassō. It means “to ordain,” “to appoint,” “to allot,” or “to assign.” The form of the word that appears in verse 48 is tetagmenoi. It is a perfect passive participle form of tassō. It is preceded by ēsan which is the imperfect form of the Greek word eimi (to be). The expression ēsan tetagmenoi is what is called in the Greek a periphrastic pluperfect construction. The literal meaning would be “as many as were having been appointed to eternal life believed.” Or in a less literal way, it would be “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” The “had been appointed to eternal life” or the “appointment to eternal life” had occurred before they heard and believed the gospel that was presented by Paul and Barnabas. However, the wording does not require that this appointment to eternal life must be a reference to eternity past. I think what the verse is telling us is that all of those who had been saved prior to their hearing the New Testament gospel subsequently believed when they heard the gospel being presented by Paul and Barnabas. At the moment of their salvation in the past, they were appointed to eternal life. When they heard about the redemptive work of Jesus the Messiah, they believed and became New Testament believers.” [Forlines, F. L. (2011). Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation. (J. M. Pinson, Ed.) (pp. 164–165). Nashville, TN: Randall House. Emphasis added.]
49 The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. 50 But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. 51 So they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 13:49-52 emphasis added)
The overwhelming point of contention among the people of the first century is the mystery that is just then being revealed for the very first time in history. That mystery is explained by Paul in Ephesians 3:1-6. It is the mystery that has become very common to us now and we refer to as the “good news” or the “gospel.”
It is this gospel truth “…that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus…”(Eph. 3:6). But imagine living in a world where the most notable spiritual and political leaders strongly believe and enforce through beatings and imprisonment their view that only the Jews are appointed to eternal life. Just imagine the conflict and type of words that would be used by the “apostle to the Gentiles” as he attempted to rebut this contentious war against the mystery of God’s eternal plan for the redemption of all nations. In that historical context a statement like we see in Acts 13:48 most likely carries the intent to address the Israelite’s objections to God’s in-grafting of many nations rather than the Calvinistic conflict we see today created by Western individualism.