Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. (Acts 13:48)
The two obvious questions are these:
(1) What does it mean to be appointed to eternal life?Some answer as follows:
(2) Why were these individuals appointed to eternal life?
(1) To be appointed to eternal life means to be individually selected from before the foundation of the world to believe in Christ.I believe both answers are incorrect.
(2) These individuals were appointed to eternal life because of God’s sovereign grace acting regardless of anything these individuals did.
In context, it is clear that Luke is setting up a contrast between two groups of people:
So when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles [God fearers who attended the synagogue meetings (Acts 13:26)] begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath.…On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul. Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have set you as a light to the Gentiles, That you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.’” Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. (Acts 13:42-48)
|Vision of Cornelius the Centurion|
by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout
Now of course, in a very important sense, every single person is "unworthy of everlasting life." Eternal life is a gift we do not deserve and could never earn. Here, however, Paul is clearly not speaking in this sense. Paul is not saying, "You are unworthy of everlasting life - and so are we!" He is claiming that these particular Jews are unworthy of everlasting life in a unique sense that distinguishes them from their Gentile counterparts.
So why are these particular Jews “unworthy of everlasting life”? Clearly, it is because they “rejected” the revelation that God gave them. Then why are these particular Gentiles “appointed to eternal life”? Could it be because they accepted the revelation God gave them, and “begged that these words might be preached to them”? Luke does not say that these Gentiles “had been appointed to eternal life from before the foundation of the world.” He simply says that they “had been appointed to eternal life.”
Now the word translated “appointed” has a semantic range in Greek similar to the semantic range the word "appointed" has in English. For example, I might "appoint" one of my students to take charge of the classroom while I step outside. This language does not imply that the student has been predestined from eternity past to perform this role, nor does it mean that the student will actually obey me and perform this role. The language simply means that the student has been set in a particular position.
So what exactly does Luke mean when he says that these Gentiles were "appointed" or "assigned" or "set in place" for eternal life? Luke does not give us much explanation here, but when this passage is read in the context of the overarching narrative of Acts, which records the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles, I believe Luke's theology becomes quite clear.
A few chapters earlier, Luke told us about another God fearer who was set in place for eternal life. Cornelius was “a devout man…who feared God, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always” (Acts 10:2). But he did not know about Jesus. So God sent him an angel who told him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God…Send for Simon…He will tell you what you must do” (Acts 10:4-6). Cornelius obediently sent for Simon Peter, and when he arrived, Cornelius told him about the angel. After hearing this, Peter said, “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (Acts 10:34-35).
Note that Cornelius had not yet believed in Jesus for eternal life, and yet Peter said that the divine arrangements which brought him to Cornelius’ house were evidence that Cornelius had already been "accepted" by God for fearing Him and working righteousness. To be "accepted" by God, then, is not to receive eternal life; it is to be judged worthy of eternal life and therefore set in place for it. Peter went on to tell Cornelius that "whoever believes in [Jesus] will receive remission of sins" (Acts 10:43). Before Peter finished preaching, Cornelius believed and received the Holy Spirit. This is a critical episode in Luke's narrative, and it gives the church cause for serious theological reflection (Acts 11:1-18).
In conclusion, therefore, to be "appointed to eternal life" is to be set in place for eternal life because you have been judged, in a sense, worthy of eternal life. In other words, to be "appointed to eternal life" is to be “accepted by God,” just as Cornelius was.