Commentary on Acts 2:1-21
Acts 2:1-21 narrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. The author of Luke-Acts had highlighted the Spirit’s role in Jesus’ ministry (for example, Luke 3:22; 4:1, 14, 18) and anticipated its bestowal on Jesus’ followers (Luke 3:16; 24:49; Acts 1:4-5, 8). This scene in Acts is often extolled for its vision of unity. We may benefit from taking a fresh look at what this vision of unity entails.
At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had instructed his disciples to remain in Jerusalem until “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). They are in Jerusalem during the feast of Weeks (Acts 1:1) named “Pentecost” (Pentēkostē) in Greek because it was celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover. This agricultural festival (see Exodus 34:22) eventually came to commemorate the giving of the Law, but whether it did so by the time Acts was written is uncertain. Regardless, the Mount Sinai theophany (Exodus 19:16-19) informs the passage. Similar phenomena (loud sounds, fire) mark the Spirit’s arrival (Acts 2:2-3; see also 2:19). As the Sinai covenant constituted a foundational event for the people of Israel, so also is this Pentecost a foundational moment in the formation of the church.
Though Pentecost was one of three Jewish pilgrimage festivals (alongside Passover and Booths, see Exodus 23:14-17; Deuteronomy 16:16), Acts 2:5 draws attention not to pilgrims but to “devout Jews from every nation” who resided in Jerusalem. The cosmopolitan atmosphere of Jerusalem allows the author of Luke-Acts to highlight the effects of the Holy Spirit in spreading the gospel (Acts 2:5-13). To the amazement of all present (verses 7, 12), the panoply of different languages spoken is no barrier to the disciples’ communication. Despite the accusation of drunkenness (verse 13), we should not conflate this event with the speaking in tongues that Paul describes as unintelligible in 1 Corinthians 12-14 (see also Acts 10:46; 19:6). The disciples’ speech is clearly understood by their international audience (Acts 2:6, 8, 11).
In Acts 2:14-21 we hear the first part of Peter’s speech before the Pentecost crowd. Peter’s introduction in verse 14 makes clear that, even as their spokesperson, he stands in solidarity with the other disciples. After dismissing the charge of inebriation (verse 15), Peter in Acts 2:16-21 recites Joel 2:28-32 to interpret the event the crowds have witnessed. Joel proclaims that, whereas formerly granted to individual prophets and kings, God’s Spirit will now pour out onto “all flesh,” regardless of gender (sons/daughters), age (young men/old men), or social status (male/female slaves) (Acts 2:17-18). Such universalism doubtless appealed to the author of Luke-Acts, for whom the salvation Jesus brings is for all (Luke 3:6). Likewise, the Spirit is available to all who call on Jesus, whom Peter will identify as the referent of “Lord” in Joel 2:32 (Acts 2:21) later in his speech (Acts 2:36).
Peter’s quotation of Joel is not exact. He adds an introductory expression from the Greek translation of Isaiah 2:2 (“in the last days,” verse 17) that places in an eschatological context the events just witnessed. Even the mention of wine by skeptical members of the crowd (verse 13) anticipates this eschatological turn, wine being a prophetic symbol of God’s bounty in the eschatological age (see Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13-14). The apocalyptic image of fire described in Joel 2:30 (Acts 2:19) appears with the advent of the Spirit on the disciples (verse 3). The author of Luke-Acts thus sees the Pentecost event as inaugurating the eschatological era portended by Joel and other prophets. This era, the time of the church still ongoing today, culminates in the day of the Lord’s return (verse 20).
The sequence of events in Acts 2:1-21 is commonly interpreted as the reverse of Genesis 11:1-9, the Tower of Babel episode when God stymies communication between the tower’s builders by confusing their language. The Holy Spirit—and, by extension, the Christian gospel—is said to restore the unity among the different peoples of the world that was lost at Babel. The vision of unity proposed by this reading is appealing, to be sure, and the two episodes are certainly connected. The verb used for “confuse” in Acts 2:6 (syncheō) appears in the Septuagint’s translation of Genesis 11:1-9, and its noun form is used for the city of Babel’s name (Sygchysis, literally, “Confusion”).
But Acts scholar Eric Barreto asks us to consider the implications of this reading and whether it accurately reflects what happens.1 Barreto points out that this interpretation sees difference as a problem to be solved, an assumption that leads interpreters to overlook the fact that no restoration of a common language occurs in Acts 2. Instead, the Galilean disciples are heard in all the dialects represented by their audiences (verses 6, 8). What we witness, then, is the Holy Spirit validating difference and working through it, not erasing difference and working despite it. The oracle from Joel cited by Peter affirms this vision through its vivid language of “all flesh” to describe the Spirit’s permeation of persons of all genders, ages, and social status.
Calls for unity have been strong in the US context as of late. In thinking with this passage for the purposes of sermon preparation, perhaps we can ask what unity means for the church. Does Acts’ famous Pentecost scene call us to imagine a unity that is monolingual and univocal, a church with only one language and one voice? Or, as Barreto suggests, can we strive for unity without erasing difference, but rather affirming it? Is the Spirit found in a church where all members look, think, and act alike, or in a church that works together and takes difference as a starting point for manifesting the Spirit?
- Eric D. Barreto, “Whence Migration? Babel, Pentecost, and Biblical Imagination,” in Latinxs, the Bible, and Migration, ed. Efraín Agosto and Jacqueline M. Hidalgo (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 133-47.