"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.