The wanted-for-murder poster and Acts 2:38

What does a wanted poster have to do with Acts 2:38?  Some will say everything. To prove it, eventually their finger will point to Matthew 12:41.

As for the poster, we all know that when a person is wanted for murder he is being sought because of murder. He is not wanted in order for him to commit murder.

The argument proceeds that if the preposition “for” can mean “because of” as in the poster, then when Peter commanded the Jews to “repent and be baptized for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38), he meant that a person is to be baptized because of one’s sins having been remitted.

As a wanted poster illustrates, the English word “for” does possess an elasticity enabling it to signify both “because of” and at other times “for the purpose of.” Although our English word can express these different meanings, does the Greek word eis that is translated “for” in Acts 2:38 contain this same flexibility?

We are told Matthew 12:41 proves eis can convey this causal and retroactive meaning because the people of Nineveh repented “at” or “because of” Jonah’s preaching. They did not repent in order for Jonah to preach to them!

Does this example confirm that in Acts 2:38 “for” could mean we are to be baptized because we have been forgiven, rather than in order to be forgiven? The answer is not complicated, but it does require a little spade work.

First, the little Greek preposition eis conveys: toward or into some place, time or goal.  In contrast to this, dia is used to communicate “because of.”

The Last Supper illustrates the common usage of eis. In Matthew 26:28 Jesus proclaimed that his blood was “poured out for (eis) the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus died for the purpose of providing forgiveness, not because our sins have already been forgiven.

However, this does not resolve the question about the usage of eis in Matthew 12:41. The key to resolving this question lies in knowing that when eis follows verbs it can describe people’s attitudes, feelings and reactions toward something.

For example, Jesus warned against responding with blasphemy toward (eis) the Spirit  (Mark 3:29). Similarly, Abraham did not waver toward (eis) God’s promise (Romans 4:20). Paul was full of courage toward (eis) the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 10:1). God was pleased toward (eis) his beloved Son (2 Peter 1:17).

Thus while it is true that the people of Nineveh did repent because of Jonah’s preaching, this is not Matthew’s point. Rather, this text contrasts and emphasizes the nature of that generation’s response toward Jesus’ message with how the Ninevites responded toward Jonah’s message. Translated literally, “they repented toward (eis) the preaching of Jonah.”

Matthew 12:41 does not constitute nor demand an exception to the normal function of eis. It does not create the possibility that eis can contain the retroactive or causal meaning “because of.”

As uncomfortable as it might be, Acts 2:38 teaches that people are to be baptized for the purpose of having their sins remitted. A murder poster has nothing to do with Matthew 12:41 nor Acts 2:38.

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They have two boys attending university.

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