Commentary on Acts 2:1-21
Though we celebrate Pentecost every year as a central event and season, the richness and complexity of Luke’s account in Acts 2 provides a wealth of potential connections to explore between the story and the lives of our faith communities. In what follows, I identify three elements of the story that in my experience are often not addressed in our remembrances of this pivotal event in the history of the church.
But first, a word on the boundaries of the passage suggested by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). Here is a clear case where the RCL’s common and unfortunate practice of truncating passages should be resisted. Please read all of Acts 2:1-42! Also consider including verses 43-47, as it details the kind of community emerging from Pentecost and characterizing the life of the early church. If you fear attention spans will wane due to its length, perhaps present the story as a dramatic reading with several readers. This is too important a story to chop in half.
The disciples take up Jesus’ ministry of the Kingdom
Jesus has twice told the disciples that they would take up Jesus’ ministry of witness once they have been empowered by the Spirit, first in Luke 24:48-49 and then again in Acts 1:1-8. But we often speak of the “witness” the disciples are to embrace as simply or primarily their verbal proclamation of the good news. But the witness the Spirit activates is to the very arrival of the Kingdom of God among them (see Acts 1:3), and not just for Israel, but for all of humanity (see Acts 1:6-8).
This is why Luke presents as integral to the early believer’s testimony the very same kind of counter-cultural community (see 2:43-47; 4:32-37) and healing Jesus initiated among his disciples. Theirs is a Spirit-baptized ministry of word and deed that continues Jesus’ work of establishing the reign of God “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Simply put, the disciples are to pick up where Jesus left off. As with Jesus, their witness to the Kingdom unfolding among them will soon elicit deadly animosity from those who zealously guard the status quo.
A tough kerygma to swallow
There are multiple indications in this and preceding episodes that the “good news” was rather difficult news for Jesus’ disciples and many of his followers to initially wrap their heads around—and for good reason. There simply was no precedent in Israelite tradition (at least none that we are aware of) for the notion that God’s messiah would be crucified. In fact, this was counter-intuitive to the extreme. The messiah was to cast down the Romans and their elite allies from their lofty thrones, and banish their oppressive ways, not fall victim to them!
It is thus no surprise that the primary activity Luke attributes to the risen Jesus is helping his disciples make sense of this very strange good news. In three successive episodes of Luke 24, Jesus presents an initial moment of disclosure, leading to confusion/misunderstanding, leading to corrective instruction, leading to understanding, leading to proclamation by those who initially misunderstood. That same pattern is replicated here in Acts 2 and in passages to follow. The corrective instruction that first an angel (Luke 24:6-7), and then the risen Jesus (Luke 24:25-27; 24:44-49; Acts 1:1-8), and now Peter, and then others will provide is grounded in the testimony of Israel’s Scriptures to the incredible events that have unfolded and are still unfolding in their midst.
This really was part of God’s plan! But even now, and even with a spectacular miracle occurring right before them, many will not believe (see Acts 2:13). For to do so is to embrace a major paradigm shift in how the Kingdom was to arrive and what it means to welcome God’s saving reign in their midst.
The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is a strange one. But set within the context of the Primeval History (Genesis 1-11) it functions as a parallel to the fall story of Genesis 3. Once again humanity chooses to resist God’s intentions for humanity—this time God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7). They also again choose to “play God”:
“Come, let us build ourselves a city with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad on the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4)
Humanity’s primordial calling was to fill the earth and care for it so that God’s intentions for creation to blessed with abundant life could be realized. Now, humanity wants to stake its camp in one corner of creation and build walls and towers. They also brazenly attempt to stake their claim in heaven. But God confounds their tongues, and scatters them abroad to foil their evil designs. As a result, the Primeval History ends with creation in a state of desperate alienation, between humanity and God, and between humanity and one another. God’s attempt to salvage creation through flood and a new beginning is in serious jeopardy.
In Genesis 12, we see God embark on a new strategy for reconnecting with humanity and returning creation to blessing. God covenants with Abram and Abram’s descendants so that someday “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). The Spirit’s incredible miracle at Pentecost, where the tongues of all nations are made intelligible to all present—as the early believers make ready to return blessing “to the ends of the earth”—signals both an end to the curse of Babel and the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abram. For now, with the advent of God’s new age made possible through a descendant of Abraham, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). The promise of repentance, forgiveness and a life empowered by the Holy Spirit is “for you, for your children, and for all who are far away” (Acts 2:39).