Belief as Used in the Book of Acts
The Greek noun for faith is pistis; the corresponding verb is pisteuo. Combined, these forms are employed some 243 times in the New Testament. There is a great deal of confusion and controversy in the community of “Christendom” as to the meaning of these terms. Unfortunately, sectarian bias has clouded the understanding of many on this important biblical theme.
Depending upon the context in which the words are found, their meanings can vary.
(1) Belief may involve merely being exposed to certain data and acknowledging such as reliable. When Paul heard of divisions within the church at Corinth, he said: “I partly believe it” (1 Corinthians 11:18). He accepted the report as fairly credible.
(2) Believing can go a step further, though, suggesting the idea of trust_. Knowing the temperament of men, Jesus did not “trust” (_pisteuo) himself to the Jews of Jerusalem (John 2:24). God did “trust” Paul, however, and so committed the gospel unto his apostle, to be proclaimed in a ministry to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7).
(3) Belief can be used — and frequently is — in the full sense of being obedient. Jesus taught:
“He that believeth [pisteuo] on the Son hath eternal life; but he that obeyeth not [apeitho] the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him” John 3:36 — ASV).
[Note: The King James translators did not favor us by rendering two different Greek terms by the same English word. An important distinction was obscured. Cf. Heb. 3:18-19 – ASV.]
In the ultimate sense, therefore, to believe the Lord is to do what he says, and a refusal to obey his will is an expression of disbelief. This is a sobering thought.
The main focus of this study will be to consider how the verb pisteuo is used in the book of Acts.
Pisteuo is found some thirty-nine times in Acts. In the ASV, it is rendered by such English terms as believe, believed, and believers (a present participle in Acts 5:14, i.e., believing ones).
A careful study of the use of this verb in the book of Acts will reveal that in many instances “believing” is a summary term that embraces all of the conditions inherent in the divine plan of salvation, including the command to be immersed in water. This is a crucial point since most denominationalists absolutely repudiate the idea that baptism is a requisite to forgiveness. Let us, therefore, give consideration to the following cases.
(1) Following Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, certain devout Jews inquired: “What shall we do?” The apostle commanded them to repent of their sins and be baptized for the remission thereof (2:38). Those who “received his word were baptized” (v. 41).
Luke then says: “And all that believed were together” (v. 44). “Believed” sums up the obedience described previously.
(2) On the initial day of its existence, the church consisted of at least 3,000 souls. Later, Luke records that many others heard the word and “believed; and the number of men came to be about five thousand” (4:4). It is obvious that the 5,000 mentioned here included the 3,000 referenced earlier, and that the “believed” of this passage means precisely what it did in 2:44.
(3) After the baptism of Cornelius, the first Gentile convert, Peter went to Jerusalem to defend his actions before a rather hostile Jewish audience (cf. 11:2). He argued that God had authenticated the Gentiles’ acceptance by giving them the Holy Spirit.
The apostle then said:
“If then God gave unto them the like gift as he did also unto us, when we [Jews] believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God?” (11:17).
Note that the entire conversion process of the Jews (cf. 2:38) is simply referred to as “when we believed.”
(4) In the course of his first missionary journey, Paul, together with Barnabas, came to the city of Iconium. They entered into a synagogue of the Jews and proclaimed the gospel of Christ.
There was an encouraging response for Luke says that “a great multitude both of Jews and Greeks believed” (14:1). Note the sentence that follows. “But the Jews that were disobedient stirred up the souls of the Gentiles, and made them evil affected against the brethren” (ASV).
The term rendered “disobedient” in the ASV is apeitheo, which carries the idea of refusing to be persuaded, a failure to comply (Thayer, p. 55). Moulton and Milligan, prominent experts in the Greek papyri, cite numerous examples of where apeitheo means “to disobey.” In conclusion they stated: “We have not sought for more instances, but it has seemed desirable to give rather plentiful illustrations to prove a case which is very important for doctrine” (p. 55).
(5) On his second missionary journey, Paul, along with Silas, was imprisoned in Philippi. After a dramatic earthquake, by means of which God opened the prison doors and loosed the inmates’ bonds, the jailor pled for the knowledge of salvation.
The brothers instructed him. His penitent faith was evidenced as he washed the blood from their backs and, near the midnight hour, he and his household were immersed into Christ.
But look at how Luke describes the whole process, “. . . having believed in God” (16:34). The perfect participle depicts the state at which they arrived as a consequence of their obedience.
(6) When Paul came to Ephesus on his third missionary trip, he encountered certain sincere students who had been immersed with the baptism that was a part of the teaching of John, the forerunner of Christ (Acts 19:1ff; cf. Matthew 3:1ff).
Perhaps something alerted the apostle to a deficiency in their earlier instruction; he thus asked: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They replied in the negative.
Paul then asked: “Into what then were you baptized?” He was not framing a new question on an entirely different theme. Rather, baptism was a part of the belief process, concerning which he had just inquired.
The examples cited above are but a sampling of those in Acts which elucidate the nature of the faith required to be a Christian. For the reader who wants to explore this matter further, we would suggest that he take a look at some of the following passages (4:32; 8:12; 9:42; 10:45; 13:12,48; 14:23; 15:5; 16:1; 17:12,34; 18:8,27; 19:18; 21:20,25; 22:19).
Belief, because it is the foundation of one’s surrender to Christ, and because it is the motivating factor for further obedience, is employed by Luke to reflect the entire process in becoming a Christian — including repentance, acknowledgment of Jesus as the Son of God, and immersion in water. How can anyone contend that the sole mental act of “believing” in Christ represents the entire plan of salvation?
[Note: See also our commentary on Luke’s “Acts of the Apostles: from Jerusalem to Rome”, available from “Courier Publications” (Stockton, CA; 1-888-818-2463).
Scripture references: 1 Corinthians 11:18; John 2:24; Galatians 2:7; John 3:36; Hebrews 3:18-19; Acts 5:14; 1 Thessalonians 5; 1 Thessalonians 3; Acts 19:1; Matthew 3:1
- Thayer, J.H. (1958), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark).
- Moulton, J.H. & Milligan, G. (1963), The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated From the Papyri (London: Hodder & Stoughton).