Commentary on Acts 2:1-21
If a roomful of people given the ability to speak foreign languages sounds electrifying, try imagining a churchful of prophets.1
The visible and audible signs of the Spirit receive nearly all the attention in Pentecost liturgy, art, and wonder. But Acts 2 speaks of another Pentecost sign. Although that sign may be relatively understated in the text, it has the most powerful and long-term effects. It is a manifestation of the Spirit that we continue to experience on a regular basis, although churches usually neglectfully assume that it’s relegated to the repertoire of clergy and scholars. I’m talking about prophecy.
“What Does This Mean?”
Backwoods Galileans speaking foreign languages attract attention among the other Jews in Jerusalem — both residents and pilgrims celebrating the Feast of Weeks (also known as the Day of the First Fruits, Shavuot, or Pentecost). Capturing attention is one thing; making sense is another. The cosmopolitan crowd expresses curiosity and scorn. They clamor for an explanation, for meaning. Peter’s entire speech in 2:16-36 offers his answer to their foundational question, “What does this mean?” (2:12).
Peter’s answer begins with a turn to Joel. He does not quote the Septuagint version of the prophet’s oracle exactly, for he subtly reshapes Joel 2:28-32a to make it more fitting to the current occasion. Peter makes at least three significant revisions:
1. He changes the opening clause from “After these things” to “In the last days.” Peter sees himself announcing a concluding, culminating era in human history. The times have changed.
2. He inserts the word my before “slaves.” While Joel referred to “slaves” as an explicit socioeconomic class, Peter broadens the identification of this group. They are God’s slaves.
3. He adds an additional “and they shall prophesy” at the end of 2:18. Peter emphasizes why God’s Spirit is bestowed on “all flesh,” given to young and old, to women and men. It is given so that they will prophesy. The Spirit in Acts is a Spirit of prophecy.
Peter retrieves Joel’s oracle from storage and makes a few alterations so it will be appropriate for the current occasion. He is not correcting or misquoting Joel as much as he is adapting the prophet’s old words for new use in new circumstances. Joel’s original testimony about God has accumulated new meaning in light of God’s deeds through Jesus Christ and his sending of the Spirit.
Therefore, Joel offers a resource by which Peter can answer his audience’s question. Corresponding with the three revisions listed above, the oracle allows Peter to:
1. Interpret the times. What does Pentecost mean? The gift of God’s Spirit indicates that something new in human history has begun. The times have changed.
2. Interpret the community created by the Spirit. What does Pentecost mean? The Spirit has come to mark the church — every member of it — as belonging to God and as God’s agent in the world. They are God’s slaves.
3. Interpret the work of the Spirit-filled community. What does Pentecost mean? The foreign languages are not an instance of trickery or mass hysteria. God is at work here, equipping people to communicate about God. The Spirit prompts them to engage in prophecy. The community of faith is a community of prophets.
What Is Prophecy?
Peter does not speak of prophecy as predicting the future. Instead, prophecy is truth-telling. It is naming the places and ways where God intervenes or initiates in the world. It is a component of proclaiming the word of God and identifying God’s salvation at work.
Peter’s sermon does more than name the notion of prophecy. It also demonstrates it. We learn what prophecy is by watching him do it.
From Peter’s reference to Joel, we see that prophecy speaks to the present time. (Remember, he is answering a very pressing question: “What does this mean?” What’s happening now?) But prophecy finds promises and images from the past that allow it to speak as it does. It draws from prior testimony about God’s activity (scripture). It also uses ideas and promises that point toward the future, for all of Pentecost and its prophetic message points toward the day of the Lord and the salvation God will ultimately accomplish (2:20-21).
The rest of Peter’s sermon (2:22-36) does similar things. In a complex exegetical argument, it looks to scripture and the story of Jesus to show that Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation provide the basis for the outpouring of the Spirit. (I have previously written on the rest of the sermon and the remainder of the Pentecost narrative here, here, and here. ) Peter is at pains to show that the events of the day point beyond themselves to reveal that Jesus is Lord and Messiah, and that God’s salvation is at hand. This is what prophets do; they show how present events might connect to God and God’s purposes.
Called to Make Meaning
Prophecy carries a lot of semantic baggage among us, thanks to “prophecy seminars,” documentaries about Nostradamus, and other dumb ideas. Another word that captures what Peter describes and does in Acts 2 is interpretation. He makes sense of the crowd’s experience. He offers a theological basis for what the crowd is experiencing, and for what they must do to share in the salvation God has prepared.
Note that Peter is not primarily an interpreter of scripture. First and foremost he is an interpreter of the present time and the gospel. Scripture becomes helpful as a means by which he makes sense of those things.
Peter also refers to a community full of visionaries and dreamers. He is not the only one equipped to make meaning. That work belongs to all who receive the Spirit, both then and now. Our churchly Pentecost observances fail if they create nostalgia instead of equipping interpreters or prophets. This passage and its wider context challenge us in a variety of ways.
- The Spirit impels its prophets outdoors. Pentecost begins in indoor seclusion and moves to public proclamation.2 Christians give theological meaning to things not for their own sake, but for the world’s.
- It is too easy to view Peter as the resident expert, the one who makes sense of things so others can watch from the sidelines. However, Peter insists that God’s Spirit is poured out widely, across social boundaries. The Spirit empowers interpretation that happens corporately. Also, Peter and other luminaries in Acts do not receive all the answers along with the Spirit. Throughout the narrative they must live into God’s future, themselves susceptible to error and reliant on others to make sense of God’s ways. This is the choppy work, the inspired work, of all God’s people.
- Acts does not regard Pentecost as an entirely singular occurrence. This scene introduces a sequence of occasions in which the Spirit mobilizes Jesus’ followers and inaugurates new directions for ministry and community. See the Spirit at work in Acts 4:23-37; 8:14-17; 10:1-11:18; 13:1-4; 15:1-35; 19:1-7. The Spirit continues to nudge believers toward new horizons. Also, Pentecost hardly describes the church’s work in total. For one thing, in Acts 2 no Gentiles are on the scene or clearly envisioned as part of the gospel’s future. Not yet. When that time for radical inclusion comes, the new stage of the church’s existence will need a little prophecy to make sense of it, too.
1 This commentary was originally published on the site on May 23, 2010.
2 Note that the conclusion of the story (2:42-47) describes movement back indoors, as the Spirit creates a community marked by fellowship, worship, unity, and charity.