My Old View
Nearly three years ago I wrote a Grace in Focus newsletter article (May-June 2004) on Acts 13:48 and the controversial phrase, “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (NKJV). Calvinists typically use this verse to prove unconditional election. In that article I questioned whether the verse was about election. I suggested it might mean, “As many as devoted themselves to eternal life believed.”
Recently I received an email that pointed out that the verb in question, when used in the passive voice as it is in Acts 13:48, doesn’t carry the sense of being devoted. As I read the email and looked up the lexical evidence, I realized I was wrong.
After interaction with a friend, and further lexical and exegetical study, I believe I’ve arrived at a view that better fits the evidence.
Some Were and Some Were Not Prepared for Eternal Life
There is a clear connection between the reference to eternal life in v 48 and its mention two verses earlier. Paul and Barnabas were in Pisidian Antioch speaking in the synagogue to both Jews and Gentiles. Boldly Paul and Barnabas said to the Jews who were jealousy opposing them, “Since you reject [the word of God], and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles” (v 46). Then they cite two statements from Isaiah, “I have set you [or You] as a light to the Gentiles, that you [or You] should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.” Luke then said, “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed [esan tetagmenoi] to/for eternal life believed(v 48).”
We should not overly press the idea in v 46 of people who were guilty of judging themselves unworthy of eternal life. Paul’s point is that the Jews who rejected the saving message about Jesus were in effect also rejecting eternal life. While they didn’t realize it, they were indicting themselves by their rejection of the apostolic word. The words of Jesus in John 3:18 come to mind where He teaches that those who do not believe in Him stand condemned already.
Two groups had two different relationships with eternal life. The first group did not receive it and judged themselves unworthy of it. They were not prepared when they first heard the saving message. The second group did receive it and these were ones whom God in some sense had prepared to believe in Christ.
The Verb Tassō Refers to Placing or Positioning Someone or Something
The word appointed in most translations of Acts 13:48 is a translation of the Greek verb tassō. The leading dictionary of NT Greek gives as the first meaning of this word “to bring about an order of things by arranging, arrange, put in place” (BDAG, p. 991b). The lexicon suggests that a number of NT usages, including the passage under discussion, fit under this nuance: Matt 8:9; Luke 7:8; Acts 13:48; Rom 13:1; 1 Cor 16:15.
BDAG suggests this specific understanding of Acts 13:48, “belong to, be classed among those possessing [eternal life]” (p. 991c). While I don’t agree with that conclusion, it is instructive that the lexicon does not adopt the appointed to eternal life understanding.
The second major meaning of the word is “to give instructions as to what must be done, order, fix, determine, appoint” (p. 991cd). The lexicon suggests these verses carry those nuances: Matt 28:16; Acts 15:2; 18:2; 22:10; 28:23.
The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology article ontassō (vol 1, p. 476) reminds us of the military uses of this word: “its first meaning is military: to draw up troops (or ships) in battle array, and so to post or station them.”
Luke’s Four Other Uses of Tassō All Have The Idea of Arrangement or Placement
But what did Luke have in mind for us to understand? One help is to look at other uses of tassō in his two-volume work. He uses this word more than any other NT writer. There are four other uses in Luke-Acts: Luke 7:8; Acts 15:2; 22:10; 28:23.
Luke 7:8. A centurion, a man over 100 soldiers, said to Jesus, “I also am a man placed under authority.” Of the four other Lucan uses, this one literally has the sense of military placement. This centurion was placed in his position by those above him.
Acts 15:2. “They determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem.” The translation here is difficult. A more literal translation would be they arranged for [or positioned] Paul and Barnabas and certain others from among them to go up to Jerusalem. Once again, the idea of the arranging of people is evident here.
Acts 22:10. “Arise and go to Damascus, and there you will be told all things which are appointed [or that have been arranged] for you to do.” Jesus here told Paul that in Damascus he would learn what his new life’s work would be. The idea of arrangement or placement is again in view. On this occasion it is not a person, but things he will do in the future, that have been arranged. Certain tasks had been arranged for Paul to do by Jesus.
Acts 28:23. “So when they had appointed him a day [or Having arranged a day with him], many came to him.” These leaders of the Jews wished to hear what Paul had to say about Jesus and His followers (vv 17-22). They arranged or agreed upon a day to hear him. This arrangement is of days and not people. Appointed seems to be a bad translation choice here.
The Idea of Arrangement or Placement Is Also Evident in Acts 13:48
The idea of arrangement and positioning fits well in Acts 13:48 too. An overly literal translation would be something like, “As many as had been arranged [or positioned] for eternal life believed.” We might paraphrase this as follow: “As many as had been prepared for eternal life believed.” When one makes arrangements for something, he prepares for it. Troops arrangedin battle array are prepared to fight.
There is plenty of evidence in the rest of the NT of people being prepared for eternal life. In Acts 16:14 we learn that God “opened Lydia’s heart that she might heed the things spoken by Paul and Silas.” Paul said in 2 Cor 4:6 that “it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
In this way of viewing Acts 13:48, Luke is saying that the Gentiles who believed were people whom the Spirit had prepared for eternal life by opening their hearts. By contrast, the Jews of v 46 were ones who had not been prepared, whose hearts had not been opened, and hence who did not believe and did not receive life eternal.
This passage does not address the question as to whether we can do anything to get God to prepare us for eternal life. However, earlier in Acts we read of Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile who was prepared by God because he had responded to the light he received in the synagogue (see Acts 10:4-9, 35). Later, in Acts 17:27, Luke cites Paul when he said that God has granted that all might grope for God and find Him.
Thus, this passage is not about election at all. None of the terms for election or choosing are used here. Rather, the issue is arrangement or preparation. This view makes sense in light of the contrast between vv 46 and 48, in light of the meaning of tassō, and in light of Luke’s five uses of tassō.
More Work Needs to Be Done Here
Like most Bible study, establishing a new view requires us to keep digging to see if we can refine it and better defend it.
There are eight total uses of tassō in the NT (cf. Matt 28:16; Luke 7:8; Acts 13:48; 15:2; 22:10; 28:23; Rom 13:1; 2 Cor 16:15). None of the other seven links tassō with everlasting life. However, the military idea of being arranged or positioned fits well in most if not all of them.
I urge others to do more work on all eight of these passages. This would be a good topic for a journal article or master’s thesis.
Don’t Let Anyone Use This Verse to Rob You of Assurance
The real danger, of course, is that if you come to believe that only a certain group of people have been appointed for eternal life, then you may begin to wonder, “How do I know I am in that group?” If your answer is, “Because I believe in Jesus!” then the only problem with the “election” understanding of Acts 13:48 is that it misses the point of the passage. However, if your answer is, “Because my works are pretty good,” then you already lack assurance since your works are imperfect and are incapable of providing assurance.
The person who emailed me pointed out that while he believes in individual election, he doesn’t believe in limited atonement, the view that Christ only died for some. Because of that, this verse, even under the traditional understanding, gave him no trouble. That is the way it should be. Scripture can’t contradict Scripture.
Jesus died for all (John 3:16; 1 John 2:2). Anyone who believes in Jesus has everlasting life. If you believe in Jesus for eternal life, then you know you have it (John 11:25-27). It really is that simple.