< May 19, 2013 >

Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Within the New Testament, only Luke-Acts divides Jesus’ resurrection, his ascension, and the giving of the Holy Spirit into three distinct and temporally separated events (compare John 20, which talks about them all on the same Easter day).

Within the New Testament, only Luke-Acts divides Jesus’ resurrection, his ascension, and the giving of the Holy Spirit into three distinct and temporally separated events (compare John 20, which talks about them all on the same Easter day). Yet it is Luke-Acts’ plotting of the story that has overwhelmingly shaped the church’s memory and liturgical pattern. Perhaps that’s appropriate; though these three belong together as a unified whole, together clarifying what God has done for and through Jesus, perhaps these claims are so momentous that each deserves and needs a festival of its own for the church’s consideration and celebration. And so Acts moves us from the Easter encounters with Jesus, through the ascension, and now to the startling events of Pentecost.

It isn’t only in terms of narrative chronology that Luke-Acts offers something distinct about the Holy Spirit. There are two other New Testament authors who have a good deal to say about the Spirit, but each of these three voices emphasizes something different.1 For John, the Spirit is the Advocate, the continuing and comforting presence of Jesus with the church, and the source of peace. For Paul, the Spirit is that which unites us to Christ, makes us into his body, and gives particular gifts to each person for the sake of the community. For Luke-Acts, the Spirit is the power of God, the mighty burning wind that blows the church into new and unexpected places of ministry.

Of the three, the portrayal of the Spirit in Acts is the most disturbing. Who knows where such a Spirit might blow? Being a disciple of Jesus in this windstorm will bring the church, and you along with it, to unexpected places, and unexpected grace. It may only be in retrospect, and with inspired interpretation, that we can look back and recognize the Spirit’s driving wind rather than simply a frighteningly chaotic storm.

It is astonishing that the giving of the Spirit is described so briefly: just verses 1- 4, and the momentous event that Jesus had promised in chapter 1 is over. They are four weighty verses, of course. The Spirit comes with the marks of God’s own revealing presence: fire, wind, and noise (compare this scene with Exodus 19:16-19 and 1 Kings 19:11-12). But the focus of attention, both in the reaction of the crowd and in Peter’s sermon, is not on the wind and fire, and even on the Spirit as such, but on the words that the believers are speaking.

This is the central importance of Pentecost: the Spirit’s transformation of the church into a community of prophets (note that in Acts 2:18 “they shall prophesy” is found neither in the Hebrew text or the Septuagint of Joel 2:29, and appears to be Luke’s addition). The community that had gathered in Jesus’ name is now made something that they were not before: prophets of God’s word, messengers of the good news of Jesus. That transforming Spirit is given to all of them, apparently not just the eleven plus Matthias, but the larger community of 120 which was described in Acts 1:15.

This theophany of the Spirit is a unique event in Acts’ story of the church, but the gift of being made into God’s prophets will continue to reverberate throughout the narrative, not only through the apostles like Peter and Paul, but through people like Ananias (9:10-19), Philip’s four daughters and Agabus (21:7-14), and the apparently unnamed ones who will, even past the narrative limits of this book, bring the gospel “to the ends of the earth” (Acts, 1:8, which hardly describes the conclusion of this book in Rome).

Even the lowest in the household (“my slaves” in verse 18, with “my” being another meaningful Lukan addition to the text of Joel) will be claimed by God, and will become God’s servants and God’s prophets. Perhaps we ought to try speaking about the “prophet-hood of all believers” at least as much as we speak about the priesthood of all believers. This is what it means to be the church; this is the identity given to us by the Spirit’s claiming, calling, and empowering.

John the Baptist had promised that the Coming One would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, but that declaration sounded like a warning and threat (Luke 3:16-17). If the pouring out of the Spirit had meant wrath and condemnation, then perhaps we could sit back and let the rest of the world go to hell. But Luke interprets the giving of the Spirit to the church not as a rejection of the rest of the world, but as the sign that God intends to reach and reclaim it.

In another significant change from wording of Joel, Acts 2:17 begins by saying “in the last days” (rather than Joel’s “after these things”). That wording makes clear that this is an eschatological event, a God-given turning point for the world. The promised new time has begun, and Acts shows that this new age is one not only of God’s power but also of God’s grace, and that it is intended for the whole world. The focus of Peter’s exposition of the Joel passage does not stop to consider the “signs and wonders” (though such things will form part of the longer narrative of Acts; see for example 5:12); Peter’s sermon comes to its climax in verse 21 by focusing attention on the declaration from Joel that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

In the context of Joel, this passage meant the salvation of Israel and the destruction of those nations that had oppressed it. The surprise of Pentecost is that the eschatological “last days” do not bring that destruction, but rather bring mission and redemption for the world. Of course, it will take the rest of Acts (and maybe the rest of the church’s history) to fully comprehend what, by God’s grace, is meant by “everyone”.

1See Fred Craddock, Luke. Interpretation. A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1990). 292.