What Does “Getting Cut Off” Mean?
Rev. Steve Schlissel - August 21, 2002
Dear Brother AK,
The phrase, “will be utterly destroyed,” is a translation of the Greek word exolothreúo, meaning “to destroy out of its place, to destroy utterly, to extirpate.” It is used in the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Old Testament in at least three instances. In Deuteronomy 7:10: “and He repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them. He will not be slack with him who hates Him; He will repay him to his face.” In Exodus 30:33, it dictates the fate of anyone emulating the sacred formula for, or misusing, the holy anointing oil (“Whosoever compoundeth any like it, or whosoever putteth any of it upon a stranger, shall even be cut off from his people”). In Exodus 31:14 Sabbath desecrators are assigned the same fate (“Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people”).
In the Deuteronomy passage the Hebrew word is ‘abad and means “to perish, to vanish, to go astray, to be destroyed, to die, to be exterminated.” In the Exodus passages the Hebrew word is karat and is translated as “cut off” in most English versions. This translation, or, “completely cut off,” as the NIV renders the phrase you asked about in Acts 3:23, brings clarity to the meaning. In the passage, Peter is preaching to the Jews:
“For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from among his people.’”
The idea is clear: Jesus is the dividing point. All who acknowledge Jesus Christ as Messiah and Lord, and follow Him in baptism (Acts 2:36-39), constitute the Israel of God. All who reject Him come under the covenant curse and are cut off from Israel. In fact, the Hebrew word we mentioned, karat, is used idiomatically for establishing a covenant. In Genesis 15:18 God is said literally to have “cut a covenant” with Abraham. Interestingly, circumcision, a literal “cutting,” was soon given as a sign of the covenant God had cut with His people. And the penalty for failing to abide in the covenant was this: “And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant” (Gen 17:14). It was cut off or be cut off.
A full treatment of all that is contained in this profound idea would take us more than a column. Suffice to say that the covenant of God speaks of a union of life between God Himself and His people. The opposite of this union is the estate of being “cut-off.”
The idea, if not the very phrase, is used threateningly and repeatedly throughout Scripture, quite emphatically in Leviticus. But our Lord makes clear that this concept has abiding significance for all who profess Him, for all who are grafted into Him via baptism: “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:6). The same idea appears throughout the New Testament.
Though the passage you cite is a special warning to “Israel of old,” i.e., to the Jews living on the cusp of the New Era, Paul makes clear that the stakes remain the same in every generation for presumptuousness, arrogance and unbelief. “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off” (Rom 11:22). And our Lord Jesus repeats the idea for good measure in a letter to the church at Ephesus: “Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev 2:5). This is just another way of saying, “I will cut you off from the covenant,” which means to be cut off from life, cut off from God.
Israel, in virtue of its relationship to the Living God, is the place of blessing and life. To be cut off from God’s covenant is to be removed to the place of cursing and death. Jesus Christ is the way, not a way. Abiding in Him is Israel’s only option. He is the Promised Land. That was Peter’s clear message in Acts 3. There’s no way around Jesus: to this all Scripture gives witness.