The other day I was reading from Acts 11, and I noticed an interesting phrase in verse 21:
And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord.
Wait, a “great number” of those who believed “turned to the Lord?” Aren’t believing and turning to the Lord the same thing? Maybe it’s just this translation (RSV-CE), so let’s check out a few others:
- KJV …and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.
- MSG …quite a number of the Greeks believed and turned to the Master.
- NLT …and a large number of these Gentiles believed and turned to the Lord.
- NIV …and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
- ESV …and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.
- NET …and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.
- NASB …and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.
In general, the word-for-word style translations say many of the believers turned to God, and most of the dynamic style translations say many believed and turned to God. That’s a good hint that the surprising original is the more accurate reading, but let’s check the Greek anyway.
πολύς τε αριθμος ο πιστεύσας επέστρεψεν επι τόν κύριον.
Super-literally, that comes out to something like this:
a large number who believed turned/converted to/toward the Lord.
But when you try to figure out how to piece this together, grammatically, it gets tricky. I can see it going two ways:
- A great number of those who believed converted to the Lord.
This would mean that lots of people believed, and lots of them also converted. Thus, some people believed, but were not converted.
- A great number, those who believed, converted to the Lord.
This would mean that lots of people both believed and converted.
Obviously, there’s an important distinction between these two readings. The first reading suggests that it’s possible to believe yet not be converted to Christ. The second reading equates the two together, which I get the impression is what most Christians I know tend to do. But is that correct? Let’s poke around for some commentary.
John Calvin, in his commentary on Acts, translated this phrase without offering any further commentary: Therefore a great number, when they believed, were turned unto the Lord.
Matthew Henry, in his Bible commentary, describes this phrase thus: [1.] They believed; they were convinced of the truth of the gospel, and subscribed to the record God had given in it concerning his Son. [2.] The effect and evidence of this was that they “turned unto the Lord.”
The IVP NT Commentary agrees: “The Lord’s hand,” an Old Testament metaphor for God’s power and favor, is with this witness—not in signs and wonders, for they are not explicitly mentioned here, but in the convicting and convincing work of the Spirit such that significant numbers “believed” and “turned to the Lord.”
Adam Clarke’s Commentary also agrees. I guess it helps that the King James Bible supports this reading.
In fact, I couldn’t find any commentary notes explaining or supporting the first possible translation (that those who believed & converted aren’t necessarily the same groups of people). Does this mean the RSV, ESV, NASB, and the Net Bible are all misleading us? Not necessarily. Let’s check out some references to the concepts of believing and converting in the New Testament.
The word for believing (πιστεύω) shows up a ton in the Bible, obviously, and virtually every time it is clearly associated with a saving faith. Only once does it ever seem removed from that certainty – in James 2.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
James has the uncomfortable but crucial distinction of digging into the deeper meanings of “belief” and “faith” than Paul tends. James points out that there is a superficial type of faith or belief that is dead, as evidenced by the person’s lack of change or fruit or works. This same idea was touched upon by Matthew Henry in his above-quoted commentary. The people in Acts 11:21 were first of all convinced (and therefore believed) and secondly demonstrated their belief by “turning to the Lord.” Their conversion included an outward demonstration of the inward faith.
So in the end, it doesn’t seem to make much difference which of the two ways to understand Acts 11:21 we take. Believing and turning/converting are supposed to be one and the same. But sometimes people do stop short and only profess faith with their lips and never take it into their hearts to allow it trickle into their lives. Just as Peter always preached “Repent and be baptized,” Luke also reports that people were believing and turning to the Lord. A call to true lively faith was positively answered by many people. We, too, should respond in kind.