Jesus v. Moses: a translation conundrum

Jesus v. Moses: a translation conundrum

At the end of Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch, he makes a curious statement (Acts 13:38-39). It’s hard to figure out what he means. There’s no way a translation can be neutral, here. You have to interpret stuff to make it coherent. What does Paul say? I’ll quote the Common English Bible for a good, representative translation–pay attention to the areas I underline, because that’s where the question marks are:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, know this: Through Jesus we proclaim forgiveness of sins to you. From all those sins from which you couldn’t be put in right relationship with God through Moses’ Law, through Jesus everyone who believes is put in right relationship with God

Acts 13:38-39, Common English Bible

The two questions are this:

  1. What do the two words mean that the CEB translated as “be put in right relationship with God?” Your English version probably has “justified” or “made righteous.” What do they mean, in this context?
  2. Next, what exactly is Paul referring to when he refers to “Moses’ law”?

These questions don’t have obvious answers. I’ll briefly explain why and provide my own conclusions, in reverse order.

What is Moses’ law in Acts 13:38-39?

How is Paul seeing “Moses’ law,” here? There seem to be at least three options:

  1. If Paul is taken literally, then there was no salvation before Christ. If true, then Abraham wasn’t justified—but that is false (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:3)—Old Covenant saints were justified by faith. This option is incorrect.
  2. If Paul is obliquely referring to the perversion of the law under which so many Jews groaned (cf. his own experience—Rom 7—that the law was the vehicle for righteousness), then it could make sense because Jesus fulfilled the law’s demands and taught a correct view of it (R.J. Knowling, Acts, in Expositor’s Greek Testament, p. 297; F.F. Bruce, Acts, in NICNT, pp. 278-279; Simon Kistemaker, Acts, p. 488; John Calvin, Acts, p. 572).
  3. Or, if Paul is referring Jesus making the final atonement and granting perfect peace in heart and mind (Schnabel, Acts, in ZECNT, p. 584), this could also make sense.

The second sense seems to be best because, as Bruce notes, that’s the way Paul frames the matter in his epistles! This is perhaps the most difficult bit of Paul’s argument to follow in Romans and Galatians. Paul generally didn’t argue against the Old Covenant law as it really was. Instead, he argued against the perverted form of it that was common in his day. Unless you get that, I don’t believe you’ll get his discussions of the law v. gospel in his epistles. This has been the source of endless confusion among both pastors and church members. The law was never a vehicle for becoming righteous. It was a prescribed code to regulate an existing saving relationship, and to bring awareness of your own sinfulness–so you’ll embrace the Messiah when he comes to fulfill the law’s demands in your place. Your children don’t do their chores in order to become part of your family. They do their chores because they already are part of your family, and are simply meeting obligations of that relationship.

So, I believe we should assume both that (1) Luke captured the sense of Paul’s words correctly (contra. C. K. Barrett, Acts, in ICC, 1:650), and (2) that Paul was consistent in the way he framed the law and the Gospel when he spoke to Jewish audiences. When he said Jesus could free them from the sins which the Mosaic Law couldn’t, he was in essence saying “you were taught you’d be made righteous by following the law, but you can’t do it right, and your sins always remind you of that! But, guess what? Anyone who believes in Jesus is set free from that never-ending treadmill of failure, that unending quest to earn salvation!”

What do those two words mean?

Look at your bible. What can Jesus do, that Moses’ law (properly understood) could not do? English translations vary. Here are some different usages (I paraphrase the sense but keep their word choices):

  1. ESV, NASB, RSV: Moses’ law couldn’t free you, but Jesus will free you.
  2. ISV: Moses’ law couldn’t justify you, but Jesus will justify and free you.
  3. NLT: Jesus will make you right, but Moses’ law couldn’t.
  4. NET, KJV, Jay Adams, CSB: Jesus can justify you, but Moses’ law could not.
  5. NEB, REB: Jesus can acquit you, but Moses’ law couldn’t.
  6. NIV: Jesus will set you free, which is a justification Moses’ law couldn’t achieve.
  7. Phillips: Jesus can absolve you, whereas Moses’ law couldn’t set you free.
  8. CEB: Jesus will put you into right relationship with God, whereas Moses’ law couldn’t put you into right relationship with God.
  9. N.T. Wright: Jesus can set you right, but Moses’ law couldn’t set you right (the same sense as CEB, above, but with different words).

As far as what on earth δικαιωθῆναι and δικαιοῦται mean (our two words), the most logical sense is “freedom” from the perversion of the law that Judaism too often championed. That is, freedom from the error that Moses’ law was a vehicle for salvation. That idea is wrong; it was never a means of “being made right” before God. Rather, it was the prescribed shape for one’s already existing relationship with God by faith in the promised Messiah! This is the same “freedom” Paul championed in Romans and Galatians.

I believe that, in his conclusion at Acts 13:38-39, Paul is calling them to believe in Jesus as Messiah and obliquely pushing against their false idea of salvation at the same time. He doesn’t stop to explain why their perverted view of Moses’ law was wrong. He assumes they hold this wrong view (he’s speaking during a synagogue service!), and that assumption is behind his statement that Jesus can free them from the weight of perfection they assume they must meet, according to their wrong view of Moses’ law.

As far as translation goes, here are my thoughts:

  1. You must strike a balance between translation and exposition. That is, if your translation veers off too far into explaining what it means, then you’ve lost your balance. That means a translation has to be willing to leave some ambiguity on difficult subjects, or it won’t be a translation. That’s why commentaries and sermons exist–to explain and apply.
  2. The renderings “justify” and “made righteous” are of little value. They communicate nothing to unbelievers. I think we ought to freshen the concepts up by setting these words aside, and choosing words that actually communicate.
  3. There are two good options for translating these words. First, it could carry the sense of being declared to be conformed to God’s will in purpose, thought, and action (Abbott-Smith, Manual Lexicon, p. 116), or to be acquitted or cleared in a legal sense (Mounce, Expository Dictionary, p. 1125; cf. BDAG, p. 249, ¶2). Another possibility is that of freedom or release from a claim that no longer has any hold over you (BDAG, p. 249, ¶3; cf. Barrett, Acts, 1:650; Phillips trans.).
  4. If you choose the sense of acquittal, you mean that Moses’ law could never do that for you, but Jesus can. But, the Bible doesn’t teach that Moses’ law was ever meant to do that, so you’ll have to assume that Paul is implicitly referring to the wrong version of Moses’ law that was common at the time. This is possible.
  5. If you go for the “freedom from *****” scenario, you’re basically saying the same thing, but you’re framing it more as a welcome escape from an impossible burden–“I can’t follow the law perfectly, so I’m always gonna be a failure, so how do I escape this unending cycle!?” So, Paul says, “freedom is here, and it’s in Christ!”

With either option, you have to assume a great deal about what Paul means when he speaks about Moses’ law. You can only get that from his epistles, primarily Galatians and Romans. This isn’t the place to “prove” a position on that score, so I’ll simply conclude with that. My answers to the two initial questions are:

  1. Both words give the sense of “freedom or release from a claim or obligation that no longer has any hold.”
  2. When Paul refers to Moses’ law, he means the wrongheaded interpretation of Moses’ law that was common at the time–that the law was a vehicle for achieving a right relationship with God.

After all that, here is my translation of Acts 13:38-39:

γνωστὸν οὖν ἔστω ὑμῖν ἄνδρες ἀδελφοί ὅτι διὰ τούτου ὑμῖν ἄφεσις ἁμαρτιῶν καταγγέλλεται καὶ ἀπὸ πάντων ὧν οὐκ ἠδυνήθητε ἐν νόμῳ Μωϋσέως δικαιωθῆναι ἐν τούτῳ πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων δικαιοῦται

So, understand this,[1] brothers and sisters: forgiveness of sins is announced to you right now,[2] through[3] Jesus,[4] and[5] from all those sins from which you weren’t able to be set free[6] by Moses’ law—by Jesus[7] everyone who believes is set free!


[1] This is very odd grammar. In γνωστὸν οὖν ἔστω ὑμῖν, there seems to be an implied imperative subject (which could be rendered as “let this”), of which γνωστὸν is the predicate nominative. The result is something like “Therefore, let this be known to you …” I made it more colloquial.

[2] I take καταγγέλλεται to be a descriptive present, picturing an event unfolding at the time of speaking. The wording “right now” tries to capture that flavor. It’s very tempting to ditch the passive voice and render it as a present (e.g. CEB), but I resisted the urge.  

[3] The preposition expresses personal agency.  

[4] Jesus is the pronoun’s antecedent.  

[5] This is καὶ, in an additive sense (cf. Tyndale; N.T. Wright, Kingdom New Testament). It could be ascensive (Barrett, Acts, 1:650), but I decided it was best as additive.  

[6] δικαιωθῆναι is a simple infinitive, complementing οὐκ ἠδυνήθητε. The word here, commonly translated “righteous,” carries the sense of being declared to be conformed to God’s will in purpose, thought, and action (Abbott-Smith, Manual Lexicon, p. 116), or to be acquitted or cleared in a legal sense (Mounce, Expository Dictionary, p. 1125; cf. BDAG, p. 249, ¶2). Another possibility is that of freedom or release from a claim that no longer has any hold over you (BDAG, p. 249, ¶3; cf. Barrett, Acts, 1:650; Phillips trans.).

[7] I take ἐν τούτῳ to be depicting personal agency (“by/through Jesus”), but it could be the object of the verb (“everyone who believes in Jesus,” cf. Barrett, Acts, 1:651).

The first church

The first church

Here is my translation of Acts 2:36-47. I’m doing a preaching series through the Book of Acts, and I try to translate the passages as I go. Sometimes that isn’t possible! But, for what it’s worth, here is my rendering of Acts 2:36-47, with some technical notes. I don’t claim to be a Greek ninja, but this is a representative effort from me …

Therefore, let the whole house of Israel know without a doubt that God has declared[1] Him to be both Lord and Messiah―this Jesus whom you all crucified. Now,[2] when they heard this[3] they were cut right to the heart[4] and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Men! Brothers! What should we do!?”

And Peter said to them, “Change your ways and your heart―each of you!― and be immersed in the name[5] of Jesus Christ[6] in order to have[7] forgiveness of sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, because this promise is for you,[8] and for your children, and for those who are far away―as many as the Lord our God calls to Himself.”

And with many other words he urged and pleaded with them, saying, “Save yourselves from this wicked[9] age!” So, then, those who believed and trusted his message were immersed in water. And about 3,000 souls were added [to God’s family] in those days.

They regularly gave[10] themselves[11] to the apostles’[12] teaching and to the community[13]―the breaking of bread[14] and prayer. Fear was coming upon every soul, because[15] many wonders and signs kept being done[16] by[17] the apostles.

All the believers were together,[18] and shared everything they had. They were selling their property and possessions and distributing it all to anyone who had need.[19]

Every day, by mutual agreement, they were meeting at the temple, breaking bread in their various homes[20] and sharing food together with joy and heartfelt sincerity. They praised God and had favor[21] with all the people. And each day the Lord was adding to the congregation[22] those who were being rescued.

Here are some of my friends who helped me with the translation:


[1] I can’t agree that ἐποίησεν here implies God “making” something (e.g. Louw-Nida, 42.29). The sense seems to be that God appointed Jesus to be both Lord and Christ (Louw-Nida, 37.106). The tense-form has a culminative flavor, where Christ’s ascension is the declarative event wherein Jesus assumes His throne (cf. Acts 13:32-33 and the preceding context). It could also be a gnomic aorist, in which case Peter would be emphasizing that Jesus has always been both Lord and Christ.

[2] The conjunction signifies a transition. 

[3] Ἀκούσαντες is an adverbial, temporal participle modifying κατενύγησαν.

[4] τὴν καρδίαν is an adverbial accusative of reference.

[5] The preposition expresses reference; they must each be baptized with reference to Jesus’ name.

[6] Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ is a subjective genitive, but I kept this construction (rather than “Jesus Christ’s name”) because it just sounds … weird … to have it any other way.

[7] The preposition in μετανοήσατε … καὶ βαπτισθήτω ἕκαστος ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν expresses purpose.

It likely isn’t causal (“because of”), because this use of the preposition is debated. Richard Young (Intermediate Grammar, p. 93) and Dan Wallace (GGBB, pp. 369-371) caution against adopting its usage here. Dana and Mantey argue forcefully for the causal approach (Manual Grammar, pp. 103-104), but Young and Wallace specifically mention Mantey and state he is incorrect. Moulton and Turner (Grammar: Syntax, p. 266) also argue for causal. Even A.T. Robertson warns against hastily imputing a causal flavor to the preposition at Acts 2:38 (Grammar, p. 595). I greatly fear to tread where Young, Wallace and Robertson bid me not to go! I must take a rabbit-trail and point out that Eckhard Schnabel bizarrely claims Wallace is in favor of the causal construction (Acts, in ZECNT, p. 165, n. 22). This is insanity. Schnabel’s research assistant must have been sleep-deprived. Wallace was against it. 

One could argue it expresses reference; that is, they must repent and be baptized concerning the forgiveness of sins. This is odd; it would work with baptism but not with forgiveness. You would have to sever repentance and baptism, and make the “with reference to forgiveness of sins” be strictly about the baptism. You could justify this because the baptism is singular, whereas the demand for repentance is plural. I suppose you could make all this work, but it’s an awful lot of tap-dancing.

It’s simpler to see the preposition express purpose. Repentance + baptism is a unified act―action and symbol. Peter is not saying baptism is an instrument of salvation; he just couples the visible symbol of salvation with the act of repentance (GGBB, pp. 370-371). “Acts 2:38 is saying very little about the specific theological relationship between the symbol and the reality, only that historically they were viewed together. One must look in other places for a theological analysis,” (NET Bible Full Notes Edition, p. 2075, n. Y). See also BDAG, s.v. εἰς, p. 290 4.f.

[8] A dative of benefaction. 

[9] The literal meaning is “crooked,” and this figurative extension of the concept yields something like “wicked” or corrupt.”

[10] Ἦσαν is an iterative imperfect. 

[11] προσκαρτεροῦντες is a periphrastic present participle, and the subjects are the 3000 who just became believers. The word means to “attend constantly” (Abbott-Smith, p. 385), to “continue in, persevere in” something (BDAG, p. 811, §2b). Mounce says it means “to persist in adherence to a thing” (Expository Dictionary, p. 1258). The two datives are objects of the participle.

[12] τῶν ἀποστόλων is a subjective genitive. 

[13] We often think of “fellowship” as eating together. The real idea is much broader. Mounce declares it means, in this context, a “mutual interest and sharing of members in the community of faith,” (Expository Dictionary, p. 247). BDAG says much the same thing (p. 552, §1). Louw-Nida adds a very good twist when it says “an association involving close mutual relations and involvement,” (34.5; emphasis added).

So, I went with “community” as my translation. I think it’s best to emphasize the “involved” aspect of real community in the exposition, rather than the translation. The sense here is the “oneness” of the group, based on their shared brotherhood based on faith in Christ. Henry Alford also prefers the rendering “community” in his translation and commentary (The New Testament for English Readers, Acts 2:42).

[14] An objective genitive. This last bit is epexegetical to further define “fellowship,” chiefly because there is no coordinating conjunction. There is dispute over whether this is simply a shared fellowship meal, or the Lord’s Supper. As A.T. Robertson puts it, “Perhaps there is no way to settle the point conclusively here,” (Word Pictures, Acts 2:42).

[15] ἐγίνετο could be a descriptive imperfect which, in A.T. Robertson’s words, presents “a sort of divine panorama, a ‘moving-picture show,’” (Grammar, p. 883). But, it may well be iterative in the sense of “fear kept on coming upon every soul because signs and wonder kept being done,” (Robertson, Word Pictures, Acts 2:43). It’s a cycle. I split the difference by keeping the first verb descriptive, making the conjunction καὶ explanatory, and rendering the second ἐγίνετο as iterative.

[16] For the translation, see Abbott-Smith, s.v. “γίνομαι,” §3, p. 92. This is another descriptive imperfect.

[17] The preposition expresses personal agency.  

[18] The pronoun is reflexive, and the preposition expression space or association.  

[19] This was likely an ad hoc response to a situation in Jerusalem. A.T. Robbsertsson remarks, “It was not actual communism, but they held all their property ready for use for the common good as it was needed (4:32). This situation appears nowhere else except in Jerusalem and was evidently due to special conditions there which did not survive permanently. Later Paul will take a special collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem,” (Word Pictures, Acts 2:44).

Henry Alford adds, “No trace of its existence is discoverable any where else: on the contrary. St. Paul speaks constantly of the rich and the poor, see 1 Tim. 6:17; Gal. 2:10; 2 Cor. 8:13, 15; 9:6, 7; 1 Cor. 16:2: also St. James, 2:1–5; 4:13.—And from the practice having at first prevailed at Jerusalem, we may partly perhaps explain the great and constant poverty of that church, Rom. 15:25, 26; 1 Cor. 16:1–3; 2 Cor. 8:9; also ch. 11:30; 24:17.—The non-establishment of this community elsewhere may have arisen from the inconveniences which were found to attend it in Jerusalem: see ch. 6:1,” (New Testament for English Readers, Acts 2:44).

[20] I believe this refers to fellowship meals, not the Lord’s Supper. I also take the preposition in κατʼ οἶκον to be distributive of space (Bock [Acts, in BECNT, KL 4177],and Barrett [Acts, in ICC, p. 170) rather than an idiom suggesting they held circuit meals of some sort.  

[21] The phrase means “favor” or “goodwill,” (Abbott-Smith, s.v. “χάρις,” §2a, p. 479; Louw-Nida 25.89). It basically means the people respected them (cf. Phillips translation).  

[22] The personal pronoun is functioning as a switch-reference device, referring back to the company of believers Luke mentioned at 2:44. The “believers” there were plural, but now Luke refers to them as a singular group, to which new folks are being added.

Good Book

bookIf you’ve traveled in Baptist fundamentalist circles, then you’ve likely encountered various flavors of King James Only-ism. This is a movement which, to a greater or lesser extent, promotes the King James Bible as the only English translation of the Scriptures for Christians to use.

I do not agree with this movement. I cannot support any movement which elevates a translation above the original Greek and Hebrew text.

If you prefer the Textus Receptus for the New Testament, that is lovely. Good men, like Kent Brandenburg, have written helpful books promoting this printed Greek text, which underlies the KJV, NKJV and the newer Modern English Version. If you prefer the Byzantine Text, fine. If you prefer the eclectic text, such as the UBS-5 or the NA-28, even better!

I wanted to recommend a good book about the preservation of Scripture to folks who may want some resources on this issue. What makes this volume unique is that is was written by fundamentalists for people in fundamentalist churches. Here is a synopsis:

The solid facts of the process by which the Bible has come to its present form are explained in detail. The book includes textual criticism of the existing manuscripts and autographs, including the Textus Receptus, the Majority, Eclectic, and Minority texts, and the Masoretic Text. It also provides needed answers to the arguments of those who adhere to extreme or exclusive positions. This book is excellent for pastors, teachers, and laypersons alike. It will prove that all conservative versions are, without a doubt, translations of the plenary verbally inspired Word of God.

The book is entitled God’s Word in Our Hands: The Bible Preserved for Us, and it costs 99 entire cents on Kindle. It’s written in an easy-going, conversational style. You can understand it. Buy it. Read it. Understand it. Use multiple English Bible versions to compare during your devotional reading. Grow in the Lord. 

Goodbye.                                                                   

Talk is Cheap

If you’re a Christian, you must prove your faith by the way you live your life. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength . . . and then keep His commandments because you love Him. It’s easy to spot a fake. You know, somebody who talks a good game but doesn’t actually do anything. James knew this. It’s why he wrote this:

jas 1(26).png

Controlling your speech is just one common example which makes a wider point. Talk is cheap. Prove your repentance and faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ by your life of habitual, loving obedience to His law.

What Have You Done for Me Lately!? (Exodus 17:7)

josh17(7).pngOn their journey towards Mt. Sinai from Egypt, the Israelites became angry. Actually, they became angry a lot, but this time they said something particularly foolish:

Exodus 17:7 (KJV): And he called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because of the chiding of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the LORD, saying, Is the LORD among us, or not?

I spent some time pondering why on earth they would ask this question. It’s a pretty stupid question, really. Is the Lord with them? Well, let’s quickly re-cap everything He had done for them in a few short months since Moses returned to Egypt:

  1. They saw Moses’ staff miraculously transformed into a serpent (Ex 4:29-31), which was meant as a token miracle to convince the Israelites that Moses really was a man sent from God to rescue them from captivity, just as He had promised their fathers (cf. Gen 15:6, Ex 6:6-8).
  2. They saw Moses turn the Nile River into blood (Ex 7:14-25).
  3. They saw the plague of frogs strike Egypt (Ex 8:7).
  4. They saw God miraculously kill all the frogs dead at once (Ex 8:8-15).
  5. They witnessed the plague of lice, and the pagan magicians themselves even acknowledged that “this is the finger of God!” (Ex 8:16-19).
  6. They beheld the plague of flies, and the way the Lord miraculously kept all flies out of the delta of Goshen where the Israelites were! (Exodus 8:20-24).
  7. They saw the Lord do yet another miracle, removing the plague of flies once Pharaoh promised to release the Israelites (Ex 8:25-32).
  8. The Israelites saw the plague which struck all the cattle in Egypt on a set date, a plague which did not touch the area of Goshen where they themselves lived (Ex 9:1-7).
  9. They witnessed the plague of boils (Ex 9:8-12).
  10. They saw the plague of fire and hail, “such as there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.” Once again, this plague did not touch the Israelites (Ex 9:13-26).
  11. They saw the Lord miraculously stop this plague upon command (Ex 9:27-35).
  12. They witnessed the awful and devastating plague of locusts (Ex 10:1-20).
  13. They beheld the plague of darkness, “even darkness which may be felt,” over the entire land of Egypt (Ex 10:21-29). Bizarrely, this darkness did not effect their own homes. Can you even begin to imagine how awe-inspiring this must have been to the Israelites, and how terrifying it must have been to the pagan Egyptians!?
  14. They witnesses the last plague, which killed all the firstborn sons in Egypt (Ex 12) – a plague which even stuck the cattle (what little were left!). More than that, they each personally experienced the Lord’s blessing and protection when they applied the blood of the passover lamb to their doorposts, so that “the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you,” (Ex 12:23).
  15. The Lord allowed the Israelites to leave Egypt well-provisioned and enriched with goods from the Egyptians (Ex 12:36).
  16. They saw the Lord, every single day, lead them in a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night (Ex 13:21-22).
  17. God miraculously split the waters of the Red Sea in the dead of night. The Lord showed Himself as a cloud which came between the pursuing Egyptians, laying a thick blanket of darkness before the enemy, but lighting the way for the Israelites to make the crossing onto the Sinai Peninsula by the roaring fire of His glorious presence (Ex 14:19-22).
  18. They saw God drown the entire Egyptian army in the river (Ex 14:27-28).
  19. The Lord miraculously provided heavenly food for them in the barren wilderness (Ex 16).

In light of all this, why in the world would God’s people even ask such a foolish question? They asked it because they were ungrateful, selfish, self-centered, and inherently wicked. I’m just the same, and so are you. We’re ungrateful for God’s blessings and provisions. You’re selfish and materialistic, ignoring God’s grace and petulantly demanding still more. Like the noted philosopher Janet Jackson asked, “what have you done for me lately?”

These people had lots of reasons to trust God to provide for them and take care of them. He’d rescued and cared for them every step of the way. More than that, He was visibly revealing Himself every single moment of every single day, by cloud or by fire. If you’re a Christian by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and His perfect, finished work, then think about the Israelites the next time you’re tempted to complain and ask anything stupid. If you’re a Christian, the Lord is always fully with you, in the Person of the indwelling Holy Spirit (cf. John 14:23).

For those who are interested, here is my own translation of this verse from the Greek Septuagint.