Day of Pentecost

How do understanding, interpretation, and imagining a better world relate to one another?

Ambulance with flashing lights streaming past lit building
Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

May 19, 2024

First Reading
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Commentary on Acts 2:1-21

Throughout Christian history, Pentecost has been described as the birth of the Christian church. In that sense, it is a looking forward, a hopeful inauguration of the task to which the resurrected Jesus called his followers before he ascended into heaven: They are to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (1:8). Pentecost is the new community’s Opening Day.

In another sense, Pentecost is a looking back—a building on the past. The story starts with Jesus’ disciples gathered “together in one place” to celebrate the Jewish festival of Pentecost. The Jews among them likely believed they knew what was about to unfold; after all, this was a familiar communal celebration. Hellenistic Jews gave the name “Pentecost” (literally, “fiftieth”) to the Jewish “Festival of Weeks” (Shevuot), which occurred 50 days after Passover. Originally a harvest festival, Pentecost eventually celebrated the giving of the Mosaic Law.

The miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit also looks back to and fulfills Jesus’ prophecies (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4–5). When a violent wind rushes in and fills the whole house, and tongues of fire appear among the followers of Jesus, some may have taken comfort from Hebrew Bible stories in which the sound of rushing wind and the tongues “as of fire” signal divine presence (Genesis 2:7; Exodus 3.2; 13:21; 19:18; Psalm 33.6; see also Isaiah 5:24)—God is with them—but many were likely overwhelmed or too caught up in the experience to interpret events this way until later.

How often do we experience God’s strange ways of working in the world as confusing, overwhelming, or even negative? Many times, we do not understand what’s really happening until later.

Margaret Atwood writes:

When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it.

It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.1

When we’re in the messy middle, we don’t know what is going on or how the story will end. We’re waiting for things to make sense. We’re asking, like the folks at Pentecost, “What does this mean?”

Some of the witnesses misinterpret what Pentecost means, assuming Jesus’ followers must be drunk (2:13). As we saw last week, misunderstanding is a common Lukan theme, although there is an intriguing distinction between this theme in Luke’s Gospel and in Acts: In the Gospel, those who misunderstand are typically those closest to Jesus (for example, 2:43, 50; 9:9, 10–17, 28–36, 37–42, 44–45, 49–50, 54–55, 57–62). In Acts, those who misunderstand are usually outsiders (for example, 3:17; 7:25; 8:18–24; 13:27; 14:11–13; 19:14–16; 22:9; see also 21:17–26).

As we also saw last week, Peter corrects the mistaken bystanders. Instructing them to “listen carefully” (2:14), he gives them a new interpretation of events, clarifying their divine origin (2:16, a slightly modified citation from the Greek translation of Joel 2.28–32): “These people are not filled up with wine, they’re filled up with God’s Spirit. This is the fulfillment of God’s promises. God’s people are dreaming dreams and seeing visions. They’re imagining a better world.”

How do understanding, interpretation, and imagining a better world relate to one another? One way is that conflicts in today’s polarized culture often stem from the common Christian claim that only insiders have true understanding and outsiders misinterpret (whether biblical texts or God’s work in the world).

It is important to remember that 1) those closest to Jesus also frequently misunderstand; 2) not all Christians agree (about the Bible, about the world, about how things are or should be); and 3) claims to absolute certainty regarding biblical interpretation or who is “in” and who is “out” can do further damage to those who have been hurt, both inside and outside the church. Pentecost reminds us that all three of these points have been true since the very beginning.

At the same time, Christians are not disempowered by the tricky truths just named. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a form of empowerment, a divine promise of God’s enduring presence. This story can thus prompt us to ask ourselves, with humility, questions such as these:

  • What does it mean for us to live inspired by God’s Spirit?
  • How does God’s power differ from human power?
  • Are we using our God-given power to meet folks amid their overwhelm and confusion, or are we jumping to conclusions about others’ experiences, assuming we know the right answers?
  • How does our community construct insider-outsider boundaries (consciously or subconsciously)?

How one interprets the many languages at Pentecost impacts many issues in the church today. For instance, some commentators write that Pentecost overturns the Tower of Babel story (Genesis 11:1–9), and that the Holy Spirit brings concord and unity (Acts 2:44–45). Other commentators suggest that Pentecost is not an overturning, but rather a new version of Babel, since the disciples speak local dialects (not one common language), and they again scatter throughout the earth. So, more questions:

  • Should a truly “globalized” Christianity transcend or erase cultural differences altogether?
  • Does Pentecost add welcome diversity to Christianity that churches today should celebrate and emulate?
  • Should Christians seek to “speak the languages” of other communities without trying to change them?
  • Which views does our community teach, and why?

Throughout the Gospel and Acts, Luke repeatedly uses seeing- and hearing-related words to commend listening well, as Peter does in 2:14. Therefore, we might also ask:

  • How do others interpret events, the world, and/or biblical texts differently than we do?
  • What might we learn from listening carefully to a wide range of diverse voices?
  • In short, preachers can ask themselves and their congregations: How do we imagine—envision and enact—God’s better world?
  • How might we, too, embody the risen Christ and, like the apostles, turn this world upside down (17:5–6)?


  1. Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), 298.