My little secret and the secret of the text

Here’s my little secret: sometimes I use a random Bible verse generator when I post a verse online on social media.

This morning I clicked looking for a good verse and got this:

testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
Acts 20.21 NKJV

When it popped up, the solution I’d long been looking for appeared immediately. The difficulty in this verse is why repentance appears before faith. (Some evangelicals use it to claim it reveals the totality of man’s response to God’s offer of salvation.)

None of the solutions I had read or thought of were totally satisfying. Now, in a flash, there it was in plain sight. The solution?

It’s a chiastic arrangement for the application of the content to audience. (See some examples of chiasmi here.)


The message to Greeks was repentance toward God, because they did not know the true God.

The message to Jews was faith in our Lord Jesus, because they already knew about the one true God, but needed to know that the Messiah had come.

Both preaching approaches always got to the coming of the Savior and the offer of redemption, but they had different starting points, because of the different audiences.

The book of Acts shows exactly this practice of Paul’s.

But what about that particle, translated as “both” in some versions? Look at the NKJV, which I used in the quote today; it has the right idea, probably. Other versions don’t recognize the verse as having a chiastic structure, so they convey the idea of both content phrases to both audiences.

The paraphrases really miss the idea. NLT, for example, says, “I have had one message for Jews and Greeks alike.” Well, yes and no. The gospel is a single message. Wayne Jackson, however, is right to say in his Acts commentary that “different points of emphasis are in view.” But that still doesn’t answer the question of why these phrases are in this order, why repentance is placed before faith, specifically.

The chiastic arrangement makes the links clear: it is repentance toward God that is key for Gentiles, and faith in our Lord Jesus that is important to present to Jews. Paul is likely thinking of his preaching strategy more than giving a summary content of the gospel response.

What does this point mean for us today?

First, it reminds us to start where people are.

Gone are the days, for example, when we can assume that people believe in the inspiration of the Bible and the divinity of Christ. Back when, we often started with the necessity of obedience to the gospel message because religious neighbors shared many of our convictions.

Not now! Today, the verse might be rendered something like this: preaching to atheists and to postmodernists about the absolute nature of God’s truth and the existence of a personal supreme Being who is creator and lover of his creation. (See how the first content phrase applies to the last group, and the last content phrase applies to the first group?)

Second, it reminds us to note while reading the Bible that its structure doesn’t always conform to our cultural ways of organizing things.

Nowhere is the Bible outlined like a sermon, I-A-1-a. (Getting it in an outline is a preacher pretzel exercise.) Historical narratives in Scripture are often organized by principles other than time sequence. Biblical truths and concepts do not normally contain syllogisms (though they are not illogical). Ancients thought as humans, obviously, but did not organize those thoughts as moderns do.

Our reaction might be to ask, why didn’t Paul just come out and say it straight? But to his hearers, the sense would have been immediately obvious, because that’s the organization that they gave to their thoughts.

Third, reading the Bible brings the joy of discovery to the one who seeks.

No matter how long you’ve read the Bible, it always provides new insights. We always have more to learn.

Fourth, everyone should hear the message presented in such a way as to be able to respond to it.

As a messenger of God, Paul preached to all and in terms that took them from where they were to where they needed to be. May we also give thought to this need as we approach all peoples with the Good News of Christ and the marvelous plan of God the Father.

J. Randal Matheny

Be pithy.

11 thoughts on “My little secret and the secret of the text

  1. Pingback: Dean
  2. Great little article and absolutely on target, I believe! Thanks, Randall

  3. I like the approach. We always should know the background of our students. Thanks for all you do.

  4. Why could it not be that the Jews needed repentance and the Greek needed faith so they could repent?

  5. Like Brenda, I was wondering if it was a parallel construction with the Jews who had faith in God needing to repent for their rejection of Christ and the Greeks who had faith in false gods needing to come to faith in Christ the true God.

    1. James and Brenda, sorry for the delay in getting back to you. Parallel constructions usually have parallel thoughts. If Paul had said in one phrase Jews-repentance and in another Gentiles-faith, then that would be parallel. Otherwise, I don’t see it, but I’m open to options.

What do you think?