Commentary on Acts 2:1-21
We encounter God as God walks among us.
God’s strollings and interventions necessarily require human remembering and/or interpretation. God acts in our finite world through humans and on behalf of humans. Luke’s Pentecost story constitutes the only account we possess of the event. Yet for contemporary believers this narrative carries diverse implications for Christian life and ministry. The importance, function, and manifestation of the Spirit vary from denomination to denomination.
In Acts 2, God sends God’s Spirit (pneuma) upon many for many to see. One hundred and twenty disciples, including eleven apostles, Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers, and other female and male co-laborers and supporters of Jesus’ ministry gathered in a second-floor room waiting to receive the Holy Spirit (1:14). While engaged in collective prayer, they elect Matthias to replace Judas by the casting of lots and more prayer. Praying and waiting neither replace nor exclude activity.
When Pentecost had fully arrived, forty days after the ten-day Passover celebration (Deuteronomy 16:9-12), the disciples were all “of one [mind] at the same place [and time]” (homou epi to auto) (2:1; cf. 2:44). Luke metaphorically describes the Spirit’s entrance into the house as a rushing violent wind. It filled the entire house so that no space escaped its occupation. The wind morphed into forked tongues of fire (2:2-4). What was first only felt and not seen became a recognizable and expressible image–an incarnation of God’s Spirit. Despite the oneness of the group, God’s Spirit manifested itself as a divided fiery image that sat upon each member individually and giving to them the ability to speak in distinct foreign languages. Just as the Spirit filled the house, it filled the people enabling them to speak plainly (apophthengomai) in fleshly-languages. The festival attendees were astounded because they recognized the persons who spoke in their various birth dialects to be Galileans (2:7). The Spirit embodied the familiar speech contexts so as to render its incarnation capable of interpretation.
Significantly, the first act of God’s Spirit at Pentecost honors the diversity and individuality of the believers. God’s Spirit does not first insist that the Spirit induced testimonies sound the same or employ the same grammatical inflections and conjugations and phonetics. Devout males, Jews and proselytes, from every nation, and who had traveled from Africa, Rome, and Asia hear this group of disciples speaking to them about the mighty acts of God in their own languages (2:8-11). God’s acts remain God’s acts in every language and culture. Confounded, the men do not agree about how to interpret the event that they have all witnessed together at the same time. Some translate what they hear as babble resulting from a midday drinking binge (2:13). Others cannot settle on one interpretation. Even the outpouring of God’s spirit at Pentecost requires interpretation. Whenever God interjects or translates God’s self into human history, interpretation is required. Theology, exegesis, hermeneutics, and preaching constitute human attempts to translate God-events into human language. Our God-talk is as diverse as our tongues. It is our language. It is never synonymous with God.
Pentecost depicts a God who honors the polymorphic nature of human language and culture with no prerequisite or expectation for uniformity. God’s Spirit in its fullness, unbridled and unrestricted, desires to sit on and to speak through individuals. We cannot use the Spirit to construct a pneumatology that paints the voice and activity of the Spirit as univocal or one voice representing all ethnicities, races, genders, cultures, or classes of people. God determines the time, the place, the channel, and the program content.
Signs benefit humans
Peter assumes the role of translator speaking plainly (apophthengomai) to the crowd. The same Greek verb signifies how the Spirit enabled the disciples to speak plainly (apophthengomai) in other languages, 2:4. Peter’s words constitute the prologue to the first and paradigmatic missional speech in Acts. Peter immediately dispels rumors of an inebriated Galilean posse by declaring the scene to be a spiritual “latter rain.” The Joel text that Luke inserts derives from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible).
Luke recontextualizes and alters the text. For example, at 2:17 Luke adds, “In the last days, God says,” as well as “and they will prophesy” at 2:18. Luke implies that they are living in the final days; in those days the Spirit will not discriminate on the basis of social status or gender. The altered Joel quotation relegates the wonders (terata) to the heavens and the signs (semeia) to the earth. The Spirit incarnates in fleshly language for our benefit. We often get this twisted. God raised Jesus, and God continues to intervene, to incarnate, and signify on the earth.
God promised and poured out the Spirit through human flesh and articulated in human language. Pentecost is sandwiched between the promise and the scriptural explanation from Joel. What God promises, God pours out. Luke demonstrates continuity between prophecy and fulfillment. The incarnate fulfillment is also paradigmatic–an exemplary embodiment of God’s Spirit. This embodied event affects every human sense: the sound and feel of torrential winds; the feel and sight of forked tongues of fire sitting on each one; and the sight and aurality of foreign language spoken by a Galilean posse. Sometimes we feel the Spirit; often we hear the Spirit; and we see the Spirit. We cannot mandate how, when, where, and to what extent God acts. This text describes a particular manifestation of God’s Spirit and promise. It is not a generic prescription nor is it a panacea.
God incarnates on God’s terms. We cannot manipulate God’s Spirit. We pray for and hope for God’s Spirit to act in us, upon us, and through us, but on God’s terms. The Spirit makes visible and tangible God’s promise to be present, to empower, and to compel testimony. Witnesses testify about God who interjects God’s self into diverse cultures, languages, and life situations making God’s presence felt, heard, and seen, and compelling us to interpret, as best we can, what we have felt, heard, and seen.