Some modern critics, as well as some Christian denominations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Biblical Unitarians, take issue with how the King James Version translates Acts 20:28. The idea that seems to bother them is that God purchased us “with his own blood.” Several groups would rather see the phrase translated, “the blood of his own (Son).” Notice the Scripture in both the Contemporary English Version and the King James Version:
Acts 20:28 CEV Look after yourselves and everyone the Holy Spirit has placed in your care. Be like shepherds to God’s church. It is the flock that he bought with the blood of his own Son .”— (emphasis mine)
Acts 20:28 KJV “Take heed, therefore, unto yourselves and to all the flock, over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to feed the Church of God which he has purchased with his own blood.”— (emphasis mine)
Which translation is correct? How should we understand this Scripture? Did God purchase us with his own blood as the King James Version declares, or should we understand that God (the Father) purchased us with the blood of his own Son (i.e. with Jesus’ blood)? If this Scripture should be translated into “with his own blood,” then Acts 20:28 makes an emphatic statement that Jesus is God, and, since the article is present before the word God, this is a very important declaration. It would virtually end any controversy anyone had with John 1:1. Concerning this point, the translators of the New English Translation say of Acts 20:28,
The genitive construction could be taken in two ways: (1) as an attributive genitive (second attributive position) meaning “his own blood”; or (2) as a possessive genitive, “with the blood of his own.” In this case the referent is the Son, and the referent has been specified in the translation for clarity. See further C. F. DeVine, “The Blood of God,” CBQ 9 (1947): 381-408.[marginal notes in the NET Bible]
The controversy, therefore, is not the grammatical content of the verse, because everyone seems to agree that the phrase could be translated either way and still be accurate. The controversy in Acts 20:28 evolves out of the liberty taken by adding the word Son to the translation. How can we know for certain how to translate this Scripture?
While grammatical content of a Scripture is important in understanding what is being said, context is just as important and more so where grammar fails to be specific enough. In Acts 20 Paul spoke of his faithfulness in preaching the whole word of God (verse 27) and he commanded the elders at Ephesus to be faithful as well (verse 28). The reason given is that the Church of God was bought with the most precious price of all. In verse 29 Paul warned the elders that, after he left men, even of their own number, would come in and not spare the flock. What Paul said here could be compared with 1Corinthians 11:17-29. There, Paul wrote in his letter that he sent to the Corinthians concerning heresy. There, some had entered the Church of God at Corinth and had not spared the flock (1Corinthians 11:17-19; cp. Acts 20:29), seeking to divide the Church and gain followers after themselves.
In 1Corinthians 11 Paul spoke in allegory. In essence what Paul said was that when we come together, it is to partake of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We do this through worship (hymns and spiritual songs), listening to the whole word of God as given in a sermon by our pastor, and through prayer. In this way our spirits are fed (John 6:53). This is the Lord’s Supper (of which the bread and the wine are symbols). When we meet together to hear the word of God preached, we are showing the world that we are trusting in the Lord’s death (1Corinthians 11:23-26).
Heresy divides the Church of God. The point of heresy is never one of truth or error. The point of heresy is always one of ownership of the flock. Heretics come into the Body of Christ in order to rob a portion of God’s heritage (the Church) for themselves. Once I begin to teach what I have studied in the Scriptures in an effort to win a following after myself (1Corinthians 11:17-19), I am seeking to take the eyes of my brothers and sisters off Jesus and cause them to look to me as their teacher. It is a matter of spiritual food, and from where one’s meal comes. In the end it is a question of ownership, whose I am. In other words, if I could obtain a following out of the Church of God for myself, I would be feeding upon those who follow me, and I would be using Jesus’ death as a platform to further my ends. Moreover, if members of the Body of Christ trusted in me, as the Corinthian church was trusting in certain teachers in the first century (1Corinthians 1:12; 3:4; 11:17-19), they would be spiritually feeding upon me instead of Christ. We would be partakers one of another. Therefore, we would be unable to be partakers of the Lord’s Supper, because none of us would be feeding upon Christ (John 6:53-57).
Paul continued his argument in 1Corinthians 12. We are all gifted differently and exercise our gifts in different ministries. We cause those ministries to function out of different organizations (works). Nevertheless, we are all of one Spirit, one Lord and one God (1Corinthians 12:4-6). We function collectively as the Body of Christ. We are his. Yet, of necessity, we must partake of one another to work effectively. Notice
1Corinthians 10:15-18 KJV I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say. 16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? 17 For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. 18 Behold Israel after the flesh: are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar? (emphasis mine)
With this in mind and comparing it to what Paul said in 1Corinthians 11:23-26, we see that in a very real sense the Church of God is compared with the body and blood of Christ. Paul said that he was faithful and delivered all that was given to him from the Lord to the Church of God (1Corinthians 11:23; cp. Acts 20:27). God gives teachers to the Body of Christ (1Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11) to build up the Church of God in Christ. However, if I exalt one teacher over another or if I teach others in order to have someone agree with me, I am partaking of the spiritual body and blood of Christ in an unworthy manner (1Corinthians 11:27-29; cp. Acts 20:26-27 & 29-30).
Paul said that he was innocent of any man’s blood, because he declared to everyone the whole council of God (Acts 20:26-27). On the other hand, those who emphasize only part of the truth and get a following after themselves (heresy) are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord (1Corinthians 11:19-20, 27-29). We are, after all, Christ’s and not a man’s (viz. Lutherans, Wesleyans, Catholics, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses etc.).
Considering all this and applying it to Acts 20:28 we see that Paul is speaking of the exceedingly precious price that was paid for the Church of God. It is the responsibility of all who participate in each and every function of that church to be faithful, because we are not our own, but are bought with an exceedingly precious price (1Corinthians 6:19-20). If I differentiate between Father and Son in Acts 20:28, I am in reality saying that the essence of one is more precious than the essence of the other. The whole point of this verse, however, is to show the exceedingly precious price that was paid for our salvation. If the most precious price was not paid, then Paul’s argument falls short of being the very best.
Leviticus 17:11 says, “the life of the flesh is in the blood…” What kind of life was in Jesus? Was he merely a descendant of Adam? Is this the most precious life he was able to offer at Calvary? Are we then to understand that the life of God was not in Christ when he hung on the cross (cp. 2Corinthians 5:19)? I am not speaking of God spiritually being in Christ as he is in all of us. I am speaking of the literal life of Christ. Was his literal life that of God? Grammatical content may permit me to play games with the meaning of this Scripture, but context demands that Acts 20:28 be translated that God paid for our salvation with the most precious price of all, “with his own blood.” If I add the word Son to this verse, I demean the work and the character of God.
God is love and when he acts, he does so out of the character of love (1John 4:8, 16). If I apply this to the work of God in our salvation, what can I say about Jesus? If Jesus’ death was indeed an act of love, wouldn’t he have had to have the freedom to choose to live or die? Liberty is an inalienable right possessed by love. Jesus had to have both possession of his own life and the liberty to lay it down or not (John 10:17-18). In other words, our salvation had to have been his choice. Otherwise, if our heavenly Father owned Jesus and purchased our salvation with Jesus’ blood, what would it have cost our Father to sacrifice the life’s blood of a slave? If this were the case, our Father could not have acted out of love, because there was no real sacrifice on his part. How can Jesus offer himself as a free-will offering, if he is the property of someone else? If Jesus were his Father’s property, what cause would there be to believe Jesus loves us or even that our heavenly Father loves us? (Since I cannot purchase anything unless I own what I offer as payment, how could our heavenly Father pay for our salvation with Jesus’ blood unless Jesus was his property? It is odd to my own ear to phrase this idea in this fashion, since I believe that God is One. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit purchased my salvation together, not as individuals. However, the differentiation is made by certain groups and modern critics, so I must speak using their terminology. Jesus said in John 15:13, “Greater love has no man than this: that he should lay down his life for his friends” (KJV). For this Scripture to be true, Christ had to be free to offer himself or to decline. An act of love is not an act of love, if there is no freedom to refuse to do the act. If Christ was a slave to our Father, then he did only that which he was commanded to do and is (to use his own judgment) unprofitable (Luke 17:10 KJV). Therefore, the Scripture must read, “…to feed the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood.”
Below are a collection of Scriptures that should convey the proposition that Acts 20:28 must be translated to show Jesus purchased our salvation with his own, i.e., God’s blood, or if you prefer, “the blood of his own (body)”. I say Jesus purchased our salvation, but he made manifest what was in the Father’s heart through his work as man. God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is our Savior, and he purchased our salvation with his own blood from his own human body.
- John 10:11 – Christ is the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his sheep.
John 10:17 – Father loves Jesus because he (Jesus) lays down his life that he might take it up again.
John 10:18 – No man is able to take Jesus’ life; he laid it down of his own free will. He had power to lay it down and to take it up again.
Hebrews 1:3 – By himself, Christ purged our sins!
Hebrews 7:27 – Christ satisfied the Law’s demands when he once and for all time offered himself. No one offered him, he offered himself!
Hebrews 9:14 – Christ offered himself without spot, through the eternal Spirit to God.
Hebrews 9:26 – Christ put away sin by the sacrifice of himself!
In summary, just because a Scripture presents a difficult thought or might be troublesome in the Greek, as some modern critics suppose, or does not fit into one’s theology is not grounds for changing the Scripture. I have found that if I lift up Christ and place him in the highest place (Psalm 97:9; Ephesians 1:20-21), I have no trouble submitting to him and caring properly for the Church of God. That is, as a Sunday school teacher (replace this gift with any other spiritual gift) I have respect for Christ as the Master of his house. I do not wish to intrude into his supervision as the Teacher of all. Moreover, I must have respect for my brothers and sisters when we differ in understanding the word of God. The LORD may require me to present the truth as he revealed it to me, but by no means has he demanded me to see to it that everyone tow the line and submit to what I say. The moment I allow myself to demand of my brethren that they believe me, I have already removed Christ from the highest place in my heart and mind. Once I do this, I begin to judge the Church of God, and split Christ’s Church into the faithful and the faithless. I would find myself judging those brethren in Christ who do not believe as I do. In other words, I would be “guilty of the Lord’s body and blood” (1Corinthians 11:27)! May God forgive us for dividing his flock and enable us to partake only of the Lord’s Supper.