Speaking boldly Paul and Barnabas said, “To you it was necessary first to speak the word of God. Since you reject it and judge yourselves not worthy of everlasting life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For thus the Lord has commanded us: “I have appointed you as a light of the nations, for you to be as salvation until the end of the earth.” And having heard, the Gentiles rejoiced and glorified the word of the Lord and believed, as many as were appointed to everlasting life.
The story of what happened in Pisidian Antioch is well known (Acts 13:13-52). Paul and Barnabas are invited to speak in the synagogue. Paul relates how God chose their fathers, brought them out of Egypt, suffered their folly in the wilderness for forty years, destroyed the “seven nations in the land of Canaan”, gave them that land as an inheritance, raised up David as a king, from whose descendants he has finally “brought to Israel a Saviour, Jesus, as he promised” (13:17-23). The rulers and residents of Jerusalem rejected this saviour and had him executed, but God raised him from the dead, which Paul understands as a fulfilment of Psalm 2:7—meaning that God has given to Jesus, as Israel’s king, not the land of Canaan but the nations as his inheritance (Ps. 2:8).
Paul concludes with a warning drawn from Habakkuk 1:5: those who scoff at the message of coming judgment will “be astounded and perish”, because God is doing a work like the invasion of Judah by the Chaldeans and the destruction of Jerusalem. The Jews ask to hear more of this, but the following week jealousy gets the better of them when they see that the whole city has gathered to hear this prophetic “word of the Lord”, and they refuse to listen. So Paul and Barnabas turn to the Gentiles, who hear, rejoice, glorify the word of God and believe—”as many as were appointed to everlasting life” (13:48). According to C.K. Barrett this is “as unqualified a statement of absolute predestination as is found anywhere in the NT”, but I beg to differ.1
There are three questions to address before we arrive, fourthly, at the matter of the appointment of the Gentiles to everlasting life: 1) What is this “word of God” which the Gentiles believe? 2) What is meant by “everlasting life”? And 3) what is the significance of the quotation from Isaiah 49:6 in verse 47?
1. The word of God
The “word of God” in Acts is not to be equated simply with the modern gospel of personal salvation through belief in Jesus. In Acts 4:31, for example, the phrase refers back to the whole argument that Peter puts to the residents of Jerusalem following the healing of the man at the gate of the temple: a call to repent in order to escape destruction and to believe that in due course God will restore Israel through the Christ, whom he has raised from the dead (Acts 3:17-26). He is the stone rejected by the builders, but he has become the cornerstone of a renewed people: no other name has been given by which Israel may be saved (4:8-12). This story about Israel is the “word of God”.
Similarly, in Acts 13 the “word of God” which the Jews reject (13:46) and the Gentiles believe (13:48) is the message that Paul had proclaimed to the Jews the week before: i) Israel faces a national disaster (13:41; cf. Hab. 1:5 LXX); ii) for this reason John the Baptist summoned Israel to repent (13:24); iii) in view of this also “God has brought to Israel a Saviour, Jesus, as he promised” (13:23); iv) God raised Jesus from the dead, giving him the nations as an inheritance (13:33; cf. Ps. 2:7-9); and v) through this man “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed” to the Jews. This whole contextualized story about the judgment and salvation of Israel, at the heart of which is the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, is the “word of God”—and, remarkably, Gentiles take it more seriously than the Jews to whom it is primarily addressed.
2. Everlasting life
If Israel faces a judgment analogous to the Chaldean invasion of Judah, when the “scoffers” in Jerusalem were astounded and perished (13:41), then “everlasting life” (zōēn aiōnion) is the corporate life that follows judgment (see also on the rich young ruler). Paul is not saying that the nation will perish historically, but individuals have eternal life in heaven. He is saying that the nation will perish historically, but a remnant chosen by grace will experience the life of a renewed and unbroken relationship with God, no longer under the condemnation of the Law (cf. Rom. 8:1-2), that will come after judgment. “Everlasting life” is the future of the people of God following eschatological crisis. It is “life” because it is not destruction; it is “everlasting” not because it is a heavenly existence, but because the God of grace will stay faithful to the promise he made to Abraham throughout the ages to come.
3. Bringing the salvation of Israel to the end of the earth
The salvation that is brought to the end of the earth (13:47) cannot be disconnected from the historical salvation of Israel following judgment. Paul quotes from Isaiah 49:6 LXX: the servant who establishes the tribes of Jacob and turns back the “dispersion of Israel” will also be “as a light of nations… as salvation until the end of the earth”. The point is simply, again, that the “salvation” of the Gentiles means their participation in the story of Israel’s salvation. It means the abandonment of a pagan culture with which God’s patience is nearly exhausted (cf. Acts 17:30-31) and inclusion in a renewed people of the one good Creator God whose future is guaranteed.
4. The appointment of the Gentiles to everlasting life
Now we come to the nub of the matter. The word for “appointed” is tetagmenoi, from tassō, which has the sense of arranging, instructing, determining, appointing for a particular purpose or outcome. Paul and Barnabas were appointed to go up to Jerusalem for the purpose of discussing the circumcision of the Gentiles (Acts 15:2); authorities are “appointed” (tetagmenai) for the purpose of government (Rom. 13:1). In the LXX we have, on the one hand, the “appointment” of the Chaldean for judgment, and on the other, the “appointment” of Israel for desolation and destruction:
O Lord, you have appointed [the Chaldean] for judgment (eis krima tetaxas), and he has formed me to examine his chastening. (Hab. 1:12)
And I will cast them into all the nations that they did not know, and the land behind them will be annihilated of anyone going through and of returning. And they have consigned the choice land to desolation (etaxan gēn eklektēn eis aphanismon). (Zech. 7:14; cf. Jer. 18:16; 19:8)
These Old Testament texts are important because they speak of an “appointment” or “consignment” of a political entity for an eschatological outcome. But clearly the emphasis in these statements is not on the selection of the group from among others but on the appointment of the group for a particular purpose or end. This is especially apparent in the passages from Zechariah and Jeremiah. The land has already been chosen. What now happens is that the chosen land (gēn eklektēn) is appointed for desolation. The language lends very weak support, therefore, to the classic Calvinist doctrine of election.
In Acts 13:48 the eschatological outcome is simply the “everlasting life” that is to be enjoyed by the renewed people of God following judgment on Israel; and perhaps there is nothing more to be said than that. There is a line of thought in Paul, however, which may frame this appointment a little differently, particularly given the context of the controversy at Pisidian Antioch.
In some sense, at least, the salvation of Gentiles, in Paul’s mind, was for the purpose of making the Jews jealous, in the hope that some would be saved (Rom. 11:14); and he explains to the Gentile believers in Rome that a “partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”, after which it may be that Israel will repent and be saved (11:25). It is perhaps too much of a stretch to suggest that Luke’s statement about a number of Gentiles being “appointed to everlasting life” presupposes just this linkage between the salvation of Gentiles and the salvation of Jews in the period before the judgment of AD 70. This certainly makes good sense of the eschatological intentionality that is suggested by Luke’s use of the word tetagmenoi.
So to draw all this together…. In Paul’s (and Luke’s) narrative of the salvation of Israel and the impact which it will have on the nations, God has appointed a body of Gentiles for a particular purpose or outcome within the eschatological timeframe of the judgment and restoration of Israel. The argument is not that God chooses or elects some individuals and not others for salvation or for heaven. It is that these particular Gentiles—and of course others like them in this period—in believing the word of God about Israel and receiving the Spirit, have come to participate in the narrative of eschatological transformation. They have become part of the purposes of God.
- 1. Quoted in R. Wall, Acts NIB, 196.