It’s helpful to remember that Pentecost as a festival day did not originate with the story in Acts.
Pentecost was a Jewish festival fifty days after Passover, involving “a freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from the LORD your God.” The feast included “you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, the Levites resident in your towns, as well as the strangers, the orphans, and the widows who are among you,” and was based on remembrance “that you were a slave in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 16:9-12).
According to the interconnections between the story in Acts and the admonitions in Deuteronomy, the church born at Pentecost has several distinct features.
The Church remains connected to its roots in slavery and deliverance. The Old Testament Pentecost remembers and embodies the story of God bringing people out of slavery into their own land with their own harvest and bounty. The New Testament Pentecost stands between the story of Matthias being selected to replace Judas as one who experienced Christ’s ministry and can serve “as a witness with us to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22) and the account of Peter’s sermon after the coming of the Spirit, grounded in Joel’s prophecy and the death and resurrection of Jesus (2:14-24). Both Pentecosts originate in experiences of God’s gift of new life in a world in which the potential for oppression, violence, and death constantly lie close at hand.
The Church remains called to give freely in proportion to the blessings we have received (Deut. 16:10) and to bear witness as the Spirit gives us ability (Acts 2:4). Both Pentecosts call us to lives of gratitude and wonder as we remember, experience, and anticipate God’s generous power that finds expression both in the fields that produce our daily bread and the Spirit who brings to life within us capacities we didn’t realize we possess.
The Church remains linked to fire: the pillar of fire that guided Israel through its Exodus nights (Exodus 13:21-22), the cooking fires essential for feasts to which all — men, women, children, slaves, strangers, orphans, and widows — are invited (Deuteronomy 16:11), and the cloven tongues of fire still resting upon the church and sending us out with other languages into ministries we never imagined (Acts 1:8; 2:4-11).
The church remains empowered as individuals and as communities. Acts speaks of “all” being together (2:1) and “all” being filled with the Spirit (2:4) as well as “each one” upon whom the Spirit rested (2:3). The same can be said for those who heard them — the large group of individuals from every nation who each heard testimonies in their own languages and who responded both personally and en masse (2:5-11, 37-47). The Spirit acts at every level. We can be confident that whether we bear witness to one or to thousands, in a small room or an arena, on street corners or country roads, it’s the same work of God, engendered by the same Spirit, making real the presence of the resurrected Christ.
The Galatians passage extends this message. Paul speaks of slavery (4:3) and deliverance (4:7) and of a Holy Spirit who enters into our hearts (4:6). However, Paul adds to our understanding of the power of God.
“We were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” (4:3)
The term “elemental spirits” occurs four times in the New Testament: here, a few verses later (4:9), and in Colossians 2:8, 20. The idea centers on things in the world that have power to so capture our attention and govern our circumstances that they can diminish, dominate, and destroy us, and render us incapable of faith, hope, and love. These elemental spirits are, for example, the source of a Pharaoh enslaving Israel or a Roman governor sentencing Jesus to death. To borrow imagery from Revelation, they are more elemental than war, famine, pestilence, and death, because they (represented by four horsemen) actually inflict those things upon the earth (6:1-8).
The term “elemental spirits” gives name to the array of causes of the struggles, despair, and misery that we see or hear about every day. My local newspaper today reports a meth lab explosion injuring seven people, a grandson stealing his grandfather’s life savings and on and on. Probably similar to news in your own part of the world. Where do all those things come from that at times, as Paul says, enslave us all?
The term “elemental spirits” doesn’t really answer that. Paul most desires to declare his own experience that, despite the reality of those things, we have available to us a more ultimate, longer lasting, and even more real freedom from those things. He calls others’ and his own experience that the same God at work in the Exodus, in the resurrection, and at Pentecost is still at work now.
Whatever those elemental spirits are, they are not as “elemental” as the presence and power of the Triune God. “God has sent the Spirit of [God’s] Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” (4:6). As children of God we are heirs of that Spirit. Our cry, “Abba, Father” captures simultaneously our cry for help in the midst of our deepest anguish and our confidence that the God who loves us also abides with us.
Every story in today’s newspaper has not yet ended. Whether we are people of God who are the subjects of those stories or people of God who are hearing about others, God’s Spirit rests upon us, enters our hearts, and empowers us to do what we didn’t know we could do for others or ourselves. All of our stories are still being written by the Spirit, in a language that before now we didn’t even know we could understand or use to produce faith, hope, and love in others and ourselves.