Donald Hagner’s book How New is the New Testament? First Century Judaism and the Emergence of Christianity is coming to epitomise, in my view, evangelicalism’s sad failure of nerve when it comes to the interpretation of the New Testament’s outlook on the future. As a historian Hagner is fully aware of the “national-political” dimension to the story about Jesus as it is told in the Synoptic Gospels. But as an evangelical he feels obliged to divert interpretation in the direction of traditional eschatological scenarios. His treatment of Peter’s sermon in Solomon’s Portico, following the healing of the lame man in the name of the crucified Jesus, exhibits the same flaws as his attempt to frame the disciples’ question about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel in Acts 1:6 (56-57).
According to Hagner, the remarkable thing about Peter’s sermon is that he exhorts his listeners to repent so that their sins may be blotted out, and “so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3:19-21).
The key phrase in that statement is “universal restoration”.
It’s taken to be a reference to the final renewal of heaven and earth. The return of Jesus will bring the “total transformation of the created order, the full entrance into the eschaton, the experience of judgment, and the restoration of a garden-of-Eden world”. But as soon as we look beyond the tendentious translation of apokatastaseōs pantōn (literally the “restoration of all things”), the argument falls apart.
In the first place, Hagner entirely disregards the context. Peter calls the “men of Israel”, who have gathered around him in the temple, to repent so that their sins may be blotted out—in other words, that they may be forgiven for having “denied the Holy and Righteous One”, for having “killed the Author of life”. This is not a general call for the repentance of humanity but a specific call for the repentance of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who chose the murderer Barabbas in the place of God’s “servant Jesus (Acts 3:13-15).
That’s where we are. We’re in Jerusalem. It’s what the story is about.
Jesus is the prophet like Moses, Peter says, whom God will raise up, and “it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people”. He has reiterated the point made in the Pentecost sermon that this is a “crooked generation” of Jews, destined for destruction, from which people may be saved by repenting of their rejection of God’s anointed Son, Lord, Messiah (Acts 3:23; cf. 2:37-40). So before the nations can be blessed through Israel, YHWH has sought first to bless his own people by sending his servant Jesus to turn them from their wickedness.
The Christ who will be sent from heaven, after a period of time, has been “appointed for you”—that is, for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for the Jews. When he comes, he will bring about the restoration of all things (apokatastaseōs pantōn) with respect to Israel, he will restore (apokathistaneis) the kingdom to Israel. That is the force of the “for you”. It restricts the scope of “all things” (pantōn).
Peter says nothing about the “total transformation of the created order” or the “restoration of a garden-of-Eden world”. This seems to be an invention on Hagner’s part. Perhaps he is thinking of Isaiah 51:3: “For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.” But this is patently an exuberant figurative description of the renewal of Jerusalem.
Likewise, when Isaiah speaks of the creation of “new heavens and a new earth” (Is. 65:17-18; 66:22), the language is not to be taken literally. It is a metaphor for the forgetfulness of God (“the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind”), and for the regeneration of Jerusalem (“I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness”). Hagner earlier classified these as “apocalyptic” texts (43), but Isaiah is only interested in the future of Jerusalem and the elevation of its standing among the nations.
Two further observations make this conclusion unassailable.
First, Josephus uses the noun apokatastasis twice, on both occasions with reference to the “restoration” of Jerusalem by Cyrus (Jos. Ant. 11:63, 98). He also uses the verbal form when he says that Hyrcanus “might have his kingdom restored (apokatastēsēi) to him by the multitude” (Jos. Ant. 14:366; cf. 13:131). Here we have precise analogies for both Lukan examples: the restoration of a kingdom by someone to someone (cf. Acts 1:6), and the restoration of a city or nation (cf. Acts 3:. All nicely coherent. All quite at home in a national-political narrative. No end-of-the-world needed.
Secondly, Jesus also speaks about the restoration of all things as he comes back down from the mount of transfiguration: ‘And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things (apokathistanei panta). … But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him”’ (Mark 9:11-13).
The allusion is to the prophesied sending of Elijah to call the wicked in Israel to repentance in order to avert a terrible destruction:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Mal. 4:5–6)
This is what John the Baptist did. The axe of God’s wrath was already laid to the root of the trees, so he urged the people of Jerusalem and Judea to repent or face being cut down and thrown into the fire (Lk. 3:7-9). John the Baptist, therefore, is Elijah who “comes first to restore all things”. This is not the restoration of all things that Peter is talking about, but it demonstrates clearly enough that the phrase is quite properly restricted to Israel’s story.
I don’t know where Hagner got his “universal restoration” from, but the translation is quite unfounded.