Sunday, August 2, 2015

Acts 2:39 - All Who Are Far Off

"For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all who are far off [τοῖς εἰς μακρὰν], even as many as the Lord our God shall call." (Acts 2:39 KJV)

"for all who are far off" (NIV)

"for all who are far away" (NRSV)

I was taught that the promise "to all who are far off" refers to all future generations to whom the promise of Acts 2:38 (in reality, the earlier promise of Joel 2:28) is made - the promise of the end time outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all flesh regardless of nationality, ethnicity, culture, or social standing. That is, the verse makes a promise to you and me - all of us who are "far off" in time from Peter's sermon.

If this is the best interpretation, then the Greek adverb for "far off" -  makran - is primarily an expression of time and the verse means that the promise retains its vitality over the years, decades, centuries, even millennia.

But the highly respected "Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT)" identifies makran as primarily an adverb of place. This term can be used literally as in Luke 15:20, a reference to the prodigal son who was "far off" - that is, geographically distant - from his father's house. The term can also be used metaphorically as in Eph. 2:13 where the Gentiles who we once "far off" are now made "near" by the blood of Jesus. "Far off" here metaphorically refers to a spiritual remoteness from God. The TDNT points out that while makran may be used as an adverb of time, such usage is limited to the Septuagint - the Greek Old Testament - and lists no such uses in the New Testament.


If "far off" in Acts 2:39 refers to a separation in distance rather than time, who then is the object of Peter's promise?

A possible key to understanding this passage is to see the language of Isaiah 57:19 echoed in Acts 2:39. Here, Isaiah reassures the Jews crushed by military defeat and exile at the hand of the neo-Babylonians that God will soon act to restore them. Through Isaiah, Yahweh promises "peace to him that is far off [Jews in exile] and to him that is near [defeated Jews remaining in Palestine]." "Far off" here - the word makran in the Greek Old Testament - is clearly a contrast of distance (geographical separation), not time.

Likewise, if the "far off" of Acts 2:39 is a spatial rather than a temporal reference, the object of Peter's promise must be both the Jews in his immediate audience ("to you and your children") and to the Jews of the diaspora ("and to all that are far off'). Remember, by the first century of the common era, a great number of Jews lived outside Palestine. These are the "dispersed" - thus the name "diaspora" - among the Gentile nations.


Now should we have a prolonged doctrinal debate about the use of this adverb in Acts 2:39? Should we draw interpretational "lines in the sand" and part company with anyone who disagrees? CERTAINLY NOT.  Do I personally believe that the end time outpouring of the Spirit is still available today regardless of the meaning of this adverb? I MOST CERTAINLY DO.

So what's the big deal? By interpreting the phrase "far off" in its original Jewish context as a reference to Jews living outside Palestine, we are reminded of the essential Jewish character of the early Jesus movement. Before there was a "Christianity" - a separate and distinct religion from Judaism - Jesus and his followers were just another "Judaism" amidst the variety of "Judaisms" in the first century.

Whatever else Jesus might have been, he was first and foremost a "teacher of Torah." He - like his contemporary rivals - interpreted the law of Moses. He never denied its authority, never rejected its claim over the life of Israel, and never sought to replace it with a new and different religious faith. The gospels are clear: Jesus never intended to form a rival religion to Judaism, but rather, in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets,  sought to revitalize his inherited faith with a reaffirmation of Israel's hopes through his teachings of the nearness and even presence of the kingdom of God.

There is very little about the teaching of Jesus that is novel. His words and actions are only understandable against his Jewish background. His language is rooted in the Hebrew scriptures. His message was the same as Moses and the prophets. (When someone tries to portray Jesus as something other than a Jewish teacher/prophet, run the other way.) Jesus differed with his contemporaries about the timing of God's saving action, but not its content. The kingdom of God is a Jewish teaching. Jesus simply argued that the coming salvation was not in the distant future, but was, even in his time, being inaugurated in the present age. This is the "good news" that Jesus taught: the future is now, God's salvation has already come. The kingdom of God in the present may be hidden from some, but to those "who have ears to hear," it is here now.

Paul tells us that the Christian message was "to the Jew first." Maybe the adverb "far off" in Acts 2:39 is telling us the same thing.

When we seek to interpret Jesus - or Paul or any other NT writer - we are always well-served to ask what is the Jewish source of these words and actions? What Hebrew scriptures are "echoed" in the language and imagery of the NT writer? The "Jewishness of Jesus" and "Paul within Judaism" may be the most important guiding principles of NT interpretation today.


  1. An important reminder, Joe, that Jesus was Jewish and his theological framework was the Torah and the Prophets. Indeed, it could hardly be otherwise if we are willing to accept that the Torah and the Prophets were divinely inspired and that Jesus came from the bosom of the Father to teach those things he knew directly from the Father. There should be no bifurcation between God's voice in the Hebrew Scriptures and God's voice in his Son, and indeed, Jesus himself seems to say this over and over, particularly in the dialogues recorded in the Fourth Gospel.

    There were several models current in the 1st century for the Jewish concept of the coming of God's rule, the day when God would be King. For the Pharisees, the way forward seemed to be Torah intensification. For the Essenes (and those in Qumran, who probably were Essenes), withdrawal from a corrupt temple and priesthood was the way forward. For the zealots, a revival of Maccabean resistance was the way forward. All of these groups and more looked for the day when God would be King, though they differed with respect to how it was to be inaugurated. John the Baptist then came preaching that it was "at hand", and the way forward was to repent and believe the good news. Jesus preached much the same thing, except to say that what John saw as "coming" had now "arrived".

  2. Now, back to Acts 2:39 and those "far off". Understanding this as a reference to the Diaspora fits in very tightly with the fact that the earliest Christians did not attempt to break the Jewish pedigree barrier in those first months and perhaps earliest years after Pentecost. Indeed, any time a barrier was crossed, the Jerusalem church immediately sent a delegation to investigate its authenticity or in some other way evaluated this new inclusiveness. It happened when Philip crossed the line with the Samaritans, and the Jerusalem church sent Peter and John to look into it (Ac. 8:14). It happened again when Peter, by direct guidance from God, preached the good news to a Gentile military officer and had to explain himself to his peers back in Jerusalem--and with some difficulty (Ac. 11:1ff.). It happened yet again in Antioch, when some escaping persecution in Jerusalem began to share the story of Jesus with Greeks, and the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to investigate (Ac. 11:22). Finally, it happened when leaders of the Jerusalem church had a "heart-to-heart" with Paul about his mission to non-Jews in Asia (Ga. 2:1-10).

    All this bears very directly upon the essential purpose of the NT text we call "The Book of Acts". When I was Pentecostal, I was taught that the essential purpose of this book was to tell us how to be saved. Indeed, we were told that in no other book of the New Testament could we discover how to be saved. Poppycock! Any intelligent reader of the Book of Acts--at least the whole book without bracketing out huge sections--should be able to see clearly that the controlling purpose of this book was to show how the message of Jesus crossed ethnic and social barriers--from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the rest of the Mediterranean world. At the end of the Book of Acts, Paul's final words are to the effect that the gospel is also for the Gentiles, and they now can be included within the circle of God's people. The very last verse in the Book of Acts is instructive, particularly in the Greek text, where it concludes by saying (and here I am offering my own translation to better emphasize the word order), "And Paul remained a whole two years...and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness--unhindered." The very last word in the text of the Book of Acts is "unhindered", and it serves to underscore the whole series of ethnic barriers crossed in the whole of book.

    One minor correction, Joe, in your excellent treatment of Acts 2:39. You have become dyslexic in your old age, for the Greek word is spelled "makran".

  3. Ah, victim of the "copy and paste" again. You would think I would have learned by now.

    I have corrected the spelling in the post. Thanks for the catch, Dan.

  4. I honestly don't remember--do the Mormons use this verse for a proof text in much the same way they use John 10: 16: "And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold, them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice ..."?

  5. Mea culpa! Dan, you caught me making the very mistake I was arguing against – treating first century Judaism as monolithic. You are quite correct that the “rivals” of Jesus held a wide range of views on the “world to come” and any sweeping generalization about “the Jews” of this period is almost always overstated.

    The important issue is not to confuse rabbinic Judaism – that emerged/consolidated/triumphed after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and has become the dominant voice in Judaism down to today – with some concept of a “normative Judaism” in the first century.

    I will add a post contrasting the notions of normative Judaism and formative Judaism in the near future – as a much needed penance for my blatant mistake.

  6. You are absolutely correct, Joe. Many well-meaning Christians--and sometimes even scholars--assume that the Judaism that survived the 1st Jewish Revolt (which was essentially Pharisaic Judaism) speaks for the whole of Judaism in the time of Jesus, which it doesn't. Furthermore, for those capable of accessing the Talmud and the Mishnah, they must remember that the opinions of the rabbis therein also do not speak for the whole of earlier Judaism. If the Qumran documents tell us anything, they tell us that there were several strands of Judaism in the time of Jesus, most of which did not survive the Jewish revolt against Rome in the 60s AD.