Our text is, “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38, KJV).
The last clause of Acts 2:38 has become quite controversial. The English translation does not seem to help. The expression "shall receive" in our culture suggests passivity. That is, something is being done for you. However, what if it is not passive but is supposed to be actively pursued by the audience? What if the thought is closer to seizing the gift without a connotation of violence? What if it is closer to the American idiom, "Seize the moment (or opportunity or day)?" In other words, if we replace "opportunity" with "gift", would we not see how there is an action meaning in the passage. Indeed, it would be "seize the gift of the Holy Spirit." In fact, the passage is truly active. It is a partial answer to the question, "What shall we do?" Peter answers, "You shall take the gift" in addition to the first two actions of “repent and be baptized.”
The scene of Acts 2:38.
The day is the national feast day of Pentecost. The twelve apostles have been "filled with the Holy Spirit"(Acts 2:4). That is, they were "imbued, influenced, supplied, accomplished, or furnished" by/with the Holy Spirit (Strong's Hebrew and Greek Dictionary). "They began to speak with other languages, as the spirit gave to them to be declared" (ABP+ Version). They are standing before a multitude that has assembled because of this. The expression “filled with the Holy Spirit”i is passive in the Greek and means that what has just happened to the apostles was a result of an outside force. Jesus had promised the apostles that He would send God's promise of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles in Acts 1:4, 5 and Luke 24:49. So Jesus and the Father are the “outside” force.
In our text, as Peter stands with the eleven speakers, he tells the audience to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Λήμψεσθε. “You shall receive [the gift].” Identifying the meaning of “shall receive” in our text is important to our understanding of Peter's statement. The verb is in the future tense but it is in the middle voice and is considered active voice. That means the action is to be done by the persons to or for themselves.
VOICES. There are at least two or three different kinds of action expressed in any language; e.g., in English there are two identifiable actions. In Greek there are three. An action word is called a “verb”; the kind of action is called the “voice” of the verb.ii
Identifying "Voice" in Sentence Structure.
Someone has written that there are over 470,000 English wordsiii in an unabridged English dictionary but only about 6000 words in Greek.iv If this is true, the difference is made up, I'm sure, by the many Greek endings that change the meaning and use of words. The endings will identify the voice of the verb in Greek. Voice tells us if the subject is doing something or having something done to it. In Koine Greek the verb can be (1) active, (2) passive, or (3) middle.
The active voice is used when the subject is doing the action.v At Philippi, Paul said to an evil spirit, “I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her” (Acts 16:18). Paul used the active voice when speaking to the evil spirit. He spoke matter-of-factly to “it.” In this sentence when Paul uses the English word "command", Paul (the subject) is doing the action of commanding.
We are acquainted with the passive voice of a verb in English by the use of "helper" verbs.vi For example, “The baseball was hit by the batter.” A Biblical illustration of the passive voice is in the great commission given by our Lord. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:15, 16). We interpret this to mean that if a person believes the gospel and is baptized, he will be saved by an outside force (God). The act of saving the subject is from outside the believer; i.e., God does the saving based on the stated conditions. Notice, that the verb “to be” is used as a helper for the passive voice in English and the verb “save” is changed in structure to “saved” with the added “d.” He obviously can not save himself.
The Greek language has a third voice: the middle voice. The action of middle voice is similar to that of the passive voice, but instead of the man being saved by outside forces, he would be saving himself. That is, if the man was saving himself then it would be expressed in Greek by the middle voice's ending.
A Biblical illustration of the middle voice is in Mark 15:24. “And they divided his clothes [among themselves].” The soldiers at the cross divided Jesus' clothes among themselves. That is, the dividing is represented as their acting for their own benefit.vii Just from the English text, one may guess that this was their motive but in the Greek, there is no question but that it was in their selfish benefit because there is a Greek middle voice ending.
Since we do not have a middle voice verb structure in English, the translation is made clearer by adding a reflexive pronoun. For example, Judas “went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5). He didn't hang someone else. Hence, middle voice. The pronoun translates the thought in English. Again, “And Jesus answering said, 'Ye have not known what ye ask for yourselves'” (Matthew 20:22, YLT). Also, middle voice.
Difference Between Passive and Middle in Greek.
A good illustration of the difference between middle and passive is in the passage 1 Corinthians 6:11. It is very important to understand this difference in order to interpret Acts 2:38 correctly. “In 1 Cor. 6:11, it is interesting to note that in the triad 'washed, sanctified, justified,' the first term is middle while the last two are passive. The sanctification and justification are accomplished by God. But in the washing, there is both the activity of the one who is baptized and the spiritual cleansing that is accomplished by the Lord. Therefore, Paul writes, 'you got yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified.' He doesn't say, you 'washed' (active), nor you 'were washed' (passive), nor you 'washed yourselves' (active verb with a reflexive pronoun), but you got yourselves washed.”viii The other two actions, "sanctified and justified" are passive; this can be expected because only an outside force (God) can do these to sinful mankind.
It so happens that Acts 2:38's “receive the gift” is in the middle voice in the original Greek but is in the active voice in English when translated. If translated in the middle voice it would be literally, "You shall get yourselves the gift." The translators chose not to use the reflexive pronoun probably because they have determined that "receive" here is deponent and is to be translated only as active. Please notice that whether active or middle, the sentence tells the audience to do something.
What Are Middle Deponent Verbs?
Some modern Greek textbooks are shying away from teaching whether there were actually deponent verbs in the Koine Greek.ix I consider it here because some Biblical commentators are of the old school. The older commentaries consider some Greek middle verbs as being “deponent.”x This means that the middle form has an active meaning and no longer has its middle meaning. “To receive”, i.e., Greek lambano is one of these words considered classic deponent verbs when in its future middle. A.T. Robertson, scholar of New Testament Greek, is one that lists the verb lambano especially as a “deponent verb.” He explains that to him this means that the verb during the first century had acquired a middle form to express the active voice.xi He implies that there is no future active for λαμβάνω “receive”xii. Any verb that has an "active" ending in the present and "middle or passive in the future” is judged to only retain its active meaning.xiii According to these commentators, such future middle forms encountered are most often to be treated as deponent futures.xiv
This is probably why the verb “receive” for Acts 2:38 has been translated into the active voice without its pronoun; however, we must remember that the verb is at best middle but in the least ACTIVE.xv "However, for many of these so-called deponent verbs, it may well be that the Greek speaker really had a perspective on the action that made a middle voice appropriate, even though in modern English we have tended to describe the action using an active voice."xvi
It is interesting that since the New Testament has so many deponent verbs that such teachers as Jonathan Pennington has concluded that they are not truly deponent but idioms of the times and still carry with them the middle voice interpretation. “Deponency is a grammatical category that has been misapplied to Greek because of the influence of Latin grammar and our unfamiliarity with the meaning of the Greek middle voice. Most if not all verbs that are traditionally considered 'deponent' are truly middle in meaning. Therefore, the use of the category of deponency – 'verbs that are middle-passive in form but active in meaning' – needs to be minimized at least, and possibly rejected all together.”xvii
The middle form ending was commonly used to mean an action of “getting for oneself” and not “just receiving delivery from someone else.” In the case with lambano a person is to receive for himself. This means Acts 2:38 is never to be considered as passive as is often interpreted by some modern teachers (not translators). Consequently, it is obvious to me that Peter's answer is for them to do something for their salvation. Hence, regardless for grammatical correctness, the gift of the Holy Spirit is something to be obtained for themselves. “Receive for yourselves the gift.” This passage should so be interpreted!
An added explanation for the use of “shall” might be in order. The future tense indicates something that happens or will happen in the future. In most instances it refers to a simple occurrence.xix The speaker conceives of the action without any notion of its continuance.xx This future is indicated in English with the verb helper “will” or “shall” as in “shall receive.” xxi Just like the English future tense, the Greek future tells about an anticipated action or a certain happening that will occur at some time in the future.xxii
There are two ways to interpret a future tensexxiii: (1) prediction -- i.e., simple predictions of what will happen and (2) command – occasionally a future tense verb is actually a command or instruction; example: “You shall not commit murder” (future indicative active, Matthew 19:18). The context determines which sense is used in the passage.xxiv In the context of Acts 2:38 a command and/or instruction is made by Peter to the audience; therefore, the second interpretation above is appropriate.
NOT JUST A PROMISE FOR OBEYING!
This cannot be overstated. To
say that this is a promise if one is baptized, is to misuse
grammatically the passage. Peter did not say that. Remember, in the
context, Peter is answering the question from the audience. What is
the question? "What shall we do?" It is not what is to be
done for us? It is, "What are we supposed TO DO?" "WHAT
SHALL we do*?" The answer is, "You SHALL receive (SEIZE)
the gift." The audience was instructed to “repent, and be
baptized and to take something.” So, I ask, is not the
middle active "Receive the gift" what they are expected to
do? It is NOT a promise! It is something they were to do.
*aorist subjunctive active.
2017: add PS: Sadly, few if any translations clearly translate this portion of Scripture. And commentaries preferred to ignore or pass over this clause without comment.
The Wycliffe Bible's literal translation of the fifteenth century gives a clear translation: "2:38 And Peter said to them, Do ye penance [Penance, he said, do ye], and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, into remission of your sins; and ye shall take the gift of the Holy Ghost."
The ExeGeses Ready Research Bible's literal translation helps as well: (ERRB) "2:38 Then Peter Petros said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one each of you in the name of Jesus Christ Yah Shua Messiah for unto the remission forgiveness of sins, and ye shall receive take the gift gratuity of the Holy Ghost Spirit."
1. They are to repent.
"Repent" is aorist imperative active; its meaning is "to
change one’s mind" (Thayer's Greek Definition).Aorist
tense: A verb in the Greek aorist tense describes an action without
analyzing it further. "When John 3:16 says God loved the world,
its 'aorist tense' merely reports what God did. It doesn't tell us
when He started or when He finished (or whether he ever stopped). It
reports the bare fact.”xxv
2. They are to be baptized. Passive voice: commanded to be immersed by someone. Result: "Forgiveness of sins." It is a "causative-result" sentence clause (do this and that will result). And? What follows in the text is the second part of Peter's compound sentence (see the chart below).
3. Two Sentences in
One. Acts 2:38 is a compound sentence: [i.e., two or more
independent clauses joined by coordinate conjunction such as "and".
The "receive" clause is not dependent upon repenting and
being baptized but is a separate action altogether. For it to be
dependent upon the repentance and baptism actions would require not a
coordinate conjunction but a subordinate conjunction which would make
the clause dependent and the sentence “complex."].
"And." They are "also" (or "and")
required to "get themselves the gift of the Holy Spirit."
This is a second clause. This is not supposed to be considered a
result of the first independent clause. Both clauses are independent
and each can stand alone as a separate sentence without the
coordinating conjunction. It is not like Mark 16:16's "shall be
saved" which is dependent upon believing and baptism. It is not
"causative-result." For the clause to be
"causative-result" Peter would have used a
"causative-result" complex sentence. The matter was not
subjunctive which would require an "if" or "when"
subordinate clause in the first clause of "repent and be
5. Definitions. The verb "shall
receive" is as has been stated a future middle form of the Greek
word "lambano." The original etymylogical meaning of
lambano is "to grasp, to seize." Gerhard Schneider
commenting on lambano, writes, "The verb lambano is attested in
Greek literature from the time of Hesiod and Homer, in inscriptions,
and in papyri. It signifies the range of meaning, 'grasp, take,
seize,' either peacefully or violently."xxvi
Delling states in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New
Testament (Volume 4, page 6) that the middle voice when used actively
means "to hold something or someone to oneself, to grasp someone
or something" (Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the
New Testament, volume 4, page 6).xxvii
Therefore, in Acts 2:38, the people are told to grasp, take, seizethe
The future middle of "receive" (Greek lambano) is active for oneself. Acts 2:38 the receiver is to actively repent and to take the gift of the Holy Spirit.
the following active meanings of the word lambano in
the NT (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other
Early Christian Literature, pages 464-465):
1. "to take in the hand, to take hold of, to grasp";
2. "to take away, to remove with or without force";
3. "to take into one’s possession something, to obtain, to take possession of, to seize a person, to be seized with emotion, to catch";
4. "to receive, to accept of taxes, to collect";
5. "to take up, to receive";
6. "to choose, to select";
7. "to make one’s own, to apprehend or comprehend mentally or spiritually";
8. "to take courage, to consult with someone, to take counsel."
It can be readily seen from the definitions that the gift of Acts 2:38 is something near at hand and is not to be construed as a future passive reward for when one dies.
The diagram of Acts 2:38 reveals the independent thought in the second clause.
PASSAGES WITH “SHALL RECEIVE” (ληψεσθεG2983) IN FUTURE DEPONENT MIDDLE INDICATIVE
“And all as much as you should have asked in the prayer, believing, you shall receive” (Matthew 21:22, ABP+). You ask in belief. “YOU SHALL HAVE IT”; Lexicon: Middle-deponent. You can be assured that you shall get what you ask for. Believing is the key.
“I am come in my Father's name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive” (John 5:43). When the false messiah comes, they choose and actively take him for their own wants. Middle-deponent but translated as a future active verb. There is no promised treat here.
“Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24). Just before His crucifixion, Jesus authorizes the apostles to pray in His name. Ask and ye SHALL RECEIVE. No doubt about it! That is, they can confidently expect to take their requested desire. Same deponent structure; understood as a future active verb. Same structure as Matthew 21:22 and Acts 2:38.
Matthew 20:7 is “You go also yourselves into the vineyard, and what ever might be just you shall receive!” (Matthew 20:7, ABP+, uses exclamation point). The parable tells about the hiring for work in the vineyard. At even, after the work, they were to take pay as determined as fair. Two things. Although it appears from experience that the taking is dependent upon the work, the instructions are not stated that way. They (1) are to go into the vineyard. (2) “THEY SHALL TAKE MONEY”; Lexicon: Middle-deponent. The payment is to be taken for the work. When they are hesitant and complaining, the imperative command to "take" the pay is asserted (English-Greek/Hebrew Interlinear).
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation” (Matthew 23:14, KJV; verse 13 in some versions). Jesus tells the hypocrites of their impending judgment and the greater punishment that they have chosen to take. Deponent-Middle and is translated as an future active verb. The word “therefore” is what subordinates the last clause and not the verb “shall take”.
“But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). A few days before Pentecost the resurrected Jesus tells the apostles that they are going to acquire power after the Holy Spirit comes upon them. The power accompanied the Spirit but they were apparently to have an active part in accessing the power. They were to grasp and hold the power. The word “after” subordinates the receiving of power and not the verb “shall take.”
The Clincher is in the context. "But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye [the apostles] shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Sa-maria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8). A few days before Pentecost the resurrected Jesus tells the apostles that they are going to acquire power after the Holy Spirit comes upon them. The power that accompanied the Spirit they were to confidently have an active part in accessing. They were to grasp and use the power to witness for Jesus. It is interesting that the "shall receive" and "shall be" verbs are both in the future middle voice and in the same context with Acts 2:38.xxix Both actions were active. The first was to be car-ried out by the apostles AFTER the Holy Spirit came. The second was to be carried out by the audience when they repented and were baptized (in water, Acts 10:47).
In all cases, a middle deponent "shall receive" is to be actively performed in getting the object (for oneself if it were the regular middle); i.e., gift, reward, wages, punishment, etc. Since the Pentecostal audience was told to receive (take) the gift, we should be able to ascertain what the gift is by what they took. What did they receive? Did they receive powers like the apostles had (which would include prophesying, healing, etc.)?
It should be evident in the context since they had been told to take something. Let's look at what the controversy suggests and test by what we are told the audience received according to the record in Acts 2:41. Is it not the Word inspired of the Spirit and presented vocally by Peter and the apostles? The application to us: have we received the same gift written by Peter, the apostles and prophets for ourselves?
Throw Out the Lifeline
i “aorist indicative passive.”
iii Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged
v e.g., “the barber shaveshis customer.” “Barber” is the subject and “shaves”is what he is doing. The action is in the “active voice.”
vi e.g., if a barber had shaved a man, we would say, “That man was shaved by a barber.” The action of the verb “shave” is directed from an outside entity toward the subject, in this case, “man.”
viii Another ex.: The verb “I know” γινώσκω has no future active form. Instead γνώσομαι (the middle form) means “I shall know” and not “I shall know myself.”
ix Another ex.: The verb “I know” γινώσκω has no future active form. Instead γνώσομαι (the middle form) means “I shall know” and not “I shall know myself.”
x “A deponent verb is either passive or middle in form, but it is active in meaning.” http://www.middletownbiblechurch.org/egreek/egreek08.htm
xi John Peile. Philology. MacMillan, 1877, p. 96.
xiv N. Clayton Croy. A Primer of Biblical Greek. Eerdmans Publishing, p. 65,66.
xv A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. George H. Doran Co., N.Y., 1914. P. 333.
xviii David G. Shackelford, editor. Beginner's Grammar of the Greek New Testament.
xxv "aorist tense." http://ezraproject.com/id34.html
xxvi Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, volume 2, page 336; quoted in article posted on http://www.wenstrom.org/downloads/written/word_studies/greek/lambano.pdf.
xxvii Ibid., http://www.wenstrom.org/downloads/written/word_studies/greek/lambano.pdf.