(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

The election of Gentiles

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.


It’s still not making sense to me. I want to read this non-Calvinistically more than anybody, but I can’t make your explanation coherent in my mind. To me it reads, “As many Gentiles who had been appointed to everlasting life believed the word of the Lord.” I don’t know how else to take this than, “God had appointed X number of Gentiles to believe that day, and that many believed.” Can you offer an expanded commentary on the passage? I’m not seeing how you’re getting around an individualistic election here. Your explanation still seems to affirm it.

OK, that’s a fair comment. Thanks for grappling with it. Let me outline some rough thoughts in response.

1. The aim is not to read this “non-Calvinistically”. I think Calvinism gets the whole election thing wrong, but the aim simply is to read Paul—though in practice for me that means reading Paul Jewish-narrative-historically, or something along those lines. We never read neutrally, but I think that the Jewish-narrative-historical approach is intrinsic to the New Testament, while the methodology that underlies Calvinism (and Arminianism, for that matter) is largely extrinsic.

2. I think it makes a big difference to read the statement about the appointment of Gentiles to everlasting life in a Jewish-narrative-historical context rather than in a systematic-theological context governed by modernist presuppositions about the centrality of the individual. Part of the answer to the Calvinist position is to read narratives rather than construct doctrines. It’s a very different way of dealing with scripture, and we’re only beginning to grasp the conceptual consequences.

3. “Election” in some form is unquestionably a biblical concept, and even if it is worked out or explained primarily at a corporate level, it is bound to have some impact on how we understand the place of the individual in the scheme of things.

4. I think that Paul’s language here in this passage puts the emphasis firmly on the purpose for which the believing Gentiles are appointed rather than on their selection from amongst others. In fact, I’m not sure it even implies election as commonly understood.

5. Even if we think of this group of Gentiles as having been chosen for a particular eschatological purpose (I will have more to say about this in later posts), New Testament eschatology, in my mind, places some important boundaries to theology. Outside of the particular context, different emphases may become more appropriate. There may be situations in which it is entirely inappropriate to speak of “election”. There may be situations in which we need to speak about “election” to quite different purposes. That’s all rather asbtract and unhelpful, I admit. But some of this should become clearer as we progress. And some of it may just remain muddy.

It’s a very interesting interpretation, Andrew, and revisits a discussion we have had before.

I don’t have much of a problem with what you say, except that I don’t think it goes far enough.

With regard to your first point, the “word of God” is primarily the word which brings people to faith in Jesus and his agenda. The heart of this is described in Acts 13:38-30.

The first part of this faith is “forgiveness of sins” (Acts 13:38). This has a historic meaning, which amounted to more than simply the restoration of Israel to her role as it had been historically understood. It amounted to the entire process, prophesied in Isaiah and the prophets, whereby the future not simply of Israel but of the gentile nations was about to be fulfilled. Just as the gentile nations were described coming to God’s temple in Isaiah, so the gentile nations came to be built into the worldwide eschatological temple, eg in Ephesians 2:19-22. The same phenomenon is described in Acts 15:16-18, quoting Amos 9:11, 12.

The second part of this faith is “justification” (Acts 13:39). This repeats the broader idea contained in “forgiveness of sins”, but adding to it the hint (not developed explicitly) that God’s people would be declared righteous not through the law of Moses, but by faith in Jesus. The clear implication is that his would be through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, which opened the way for the people of God to be identified by faith through the reception of the Spirit, as it is described elsewhere in Acts.

The national disaster predicted in Acts 13:41, quoting Habbakuk 1:5, gives even more urgency at the present time to seize hold of this salvation offered by Jesus – the only way forward into the future for the people of God in God’s plans.

In your second point, the nature of this future is examined. It is a life both now and after the immediate judgement of historic unbelieving Israel, but the nature of that life goes beyond simply a life which is lived after AD 70 (or AD 135, or whichever AD judgement you want to choose). It is a life lived with the eschatological Spirit dwelling within the community of God’s people, and within individual believers. What is the purpose of this new ontological reality? To proclaim a gospel of hope (not judgement) to the world, through a new community to be lived in the present, but also, much more, pointing to the renewal of creation which was yet to be completed. Hence the Spirit as a deposit, or downpayment, or guarantee, of the balance to come (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:`13).

“Life” in the eschatological sense in which the New Testament uses it, is always the life of the Spirit, not simply life beyond judgement in history (ie survival). Hence it is appropriate and right to translate zōēn aiōnion as “everlasting life. This “life” brings a heavenly existence into our present experience, and will be a heavenly existence beyond death, until the resurrection of our bodies to inhabit a re-created earth.

It then becomes necessary to examine the third point you raise, the meaning of ‘salvation’ which is brought to the end of the earth. Salvation here must include the whole orbit of what Jesus accomplished, which includes all that we have been discussing. It looks beyond immediate circumstances, including the imminent fall of Jerusalem, to the fulfilment of God’s worldwide intentions declared to Abraham, and God’s purposes for the entire cosmos, which remain an enduring, albeit chequered, theme of the entire narrative, before, during and beyond Israel. The first part of Isaiah 49:6, of which Paul quotes the second part in Acts 13:47, says it all:

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” – Isaiah 49:6.

This is as clear a statement of God’s worldwide intentions as can be found anywhere – clearly saying that what God was doing through Israel was never intended to be confined to Israel, but had a larger purpose in view: the blessing of the entire world. It’s not simply a participation in Israel’s salvation, but Israel’s salvation was for the Gentiles.

At this point, it needs to be said that salvation is much more than the steering of Israel through the local difficulties of imminent judgement through the instrumentality of Rome. For sure, that was the immediate issue on the horizon, but the wider issues are much more strikingly presented., both in Isaiah 49:6, and in surrounding contexts of the New Testament.

I  also agree with you Andrew in your fourth point, that “appointed” means appointed for an eschatological outcome. It is obvious that while immediate judgement on Israel may have some bearing on the meaning of the word, though not a lot for Gentiles living outside the borders of 1st century Israel, the larger eschatological purpose is as described, particularly where Isaiah 49:6 is a springboard into those purposes. Here we are looking at God’s worldwide plans, and his plans for the entire creation, always hinted at in the narrative, framed by Genesis 1-11, propelled forward by Abraham, the mainspring of the Exodus narrative, which had as its focus the fulfilment of the promises to Israel with regard to the land, and through the land, the world. Now these promises were coming true through Jesus.

The eschatological purposes for which the gentile believers were appointed was the horizon which the story always has in view: the restoration of creation and the entire cosmos. To limit the story to anything less, by arguing that these things are not spelled out in Acts 13, is to ignore the clear signs within Acts 13 that these larger issues underpinned the immediate context, and to drive a wedge between the larger biblical context and the immediate focus of attention. I’m sure nobody would want to do that.

Andrew, how much do you think this story reflects an actual event, and how much reflects the ideas of Acts put into Paul’s mouth?

For one thing, the whole set up is too perfect and not reflective of human experience: one week a whole host of Jews wanted to hear the message, but the next week, as a result of the jealousy of some, the same people changed their minds and became hostile? Why did the people who wanted to hear and were not jealous influenced by the unnamed jealous people? What were they jealous of in the first place? It’s an awful lot like the idea that a great crowd of Jews lined up to hosannah Jesus entering Jerusalem and within a week were clamoring for his execution. People don’t tend to act that way.

Another thing is Paul’s discussion to the crowd of the promise to Abraham, which doesn’t sound a lot like his treatment of that issue in his own writing. In Galatians, Paul scoffs that the promise was made to the jews collectively. There he says the promise to Abraham about his seed refers to the individual of Jesus.

It is well known that every character in Acts speaks in the same voice. Personally, I think the speeches reflect more what the author of Acts believes than anything that might have been said by Peter or Paul or the “Jews.”

For one thing, the whole set up is too perfect and not reflective of human experience: one week a whole host of Jews wanted to hear the message, but the next week, as a result of the jealousy of some, the same people changed their minds and became hostile? Why did the people who wanted to hear and were not jealous influenced by the unnamed jealous people? What were they jealous of in the first place? It’s an awful lot like the idea that a great crowd of Jews lined up to hosannah Jesus entering Jerusalem and within a week were clamoring for his execution. People don’t tend to act that way.

Paul, what do you base this judgment on? Of course, there has to be some analogy, some continuity of experience, between human behaviour amongst Jews in first century Jerusalem or Pisidian Antioch and human behaviour among twenty-first century Westerners. But surely there are going to be some discontinuities too. Your argument sounds very subjective. We would at least have to look at other historical texts from the period before confidently ruling out the possibility that excitable crowds might change their colletive mind so quickly.

We have also been watching recent events in Syria quite closely because until this week our son was studying in Damascus. Only a few weeks ago Syrians were saying it was inconceivable that there would be uprisings there because everyone supported the regime. Now look what’s happening. Collective beahviour has changed very quickly.

The other thing to judge from contemporary historical texts would be the relationship between the literary narrative and what we might suppose actually happened. Every historical record is a stylized account of the event, and we should hardly be surprised if Acts exhibits a certain stylistic homogeneity or monochromicity. Were Herodotus or Josephus or Tacitus any different?

Finally, something happened to produce the Christianity in Asia Minor and Europe described in the early church fathers, the historicity of whose writings no one seriously questions. Why should we assume a priori that it couldn’t have been something like the events that Luke describes? If it wasn’t this, what was it? Where did the faith of the early Gentile fathers in a Jewish messiah come from?

The balance of military power in Libya changed, but individuals didn’t switch loyalties for and against Quadafi from one week to the next.

There are a host of reasons that historians doubt Acts. One is that it doesn’t match up well with Paul’s letters. Hundreds of papers and books have been written on that. Also, as I said, the characters all tend to speak alike, leading to the conclusion that the author puts his words in their mouths. The book downplays James, who was a major figure in non-canonical writings, but almost ignored completely in Acts. The list goes on…

I referenced Syria, not Libya.

I understand the historical problems with Acts. I just think that they can easily be overstated or misconstrued, particularly when you allow for a natural historiographical stylization. I also think that Paul’s preaching and the turn of events in Acts 13 are fully congruent with his argument in Romans.

What a fine work. There appears to be a real tension between strict Calvinism and free will.  I think of it as this, although not a perfect analogy:  Like Ben Hur was chained to and destined to row as a slave in a Roman ship, he still had free will to choose not to row and not to save the Roman Officer that ultimately freed him.