Pentecost, Acts 2:1–21
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Our reading today comes from Acts 2:1–21: the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’ Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’
Some, however, made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine.’
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: ‘Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
‘ “In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Today we celebrate Pentecost, an old Hebrew celebration of the first fruits of the harvest. We’re going to discuss the singular event that gave Christianity its early spark, its energy, its momentum: Pentecost, a time where God’s Spirit showed up in an expected as but unexpected way. In the same way that there was an expectation of the Spirit. Ezekiel, Joel, Zechariah, all in the Old Testament, all have really explicit hopes for a new work of the presence and the Spirit of God. What happens doesn’t quite correspond to what anybody would have expected.
All the believers were in one room. There was a loud violent wind, then tongues of fire came flying over people’s heads which sounds pretty scary and pretty computing. Fire is an important message in the Bible about God’s presence. God appeared in a burning bush to Moses, in flames over Mount Sinai, and in a pillar of fire over the Tabernacle, and so the flames at Pentecost. This marks out the temple space, places where heaven and earth meet. Last week we spoke about heaven being God’s space and earth being human’s space. Pentecost is when things start to come together. That’s the claim being made here: that Jesus’ people are where heaven and earth meet. Pentecost is the story of how a marginal, small, Messianic Jewish sect came to be an international multi-ethnic movement that will become the most ethnically diverse religious movement in the whole of history.
Three times a year, when hundreds of thousands of Jews would come from all over the world, would descend on Jerusalem. The population of the city would quadruple in size. Pentecost just means 50 days because it’s seven days of seven after Passover. Pentecost was a harvest festival and they are all together in one place. Suddenly there came for noise from heaven like a violent rushing wind and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. There appeared to be on the disciples’ tongues of fire distributing themselves. They rested on each one of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit was giving them utterance. How earth-shattering this moment must have been!
The way this reason is pretty remarkable because it is not, “We just felt fired up all of a sudden. Everyone just felt encouraged and blessed, and everyone was ready to go.” It wasn’t like that at all. There was this crazy, violent, terrifying sound from heaven. Then everyone still starts talking in other languages that they don’t know. It’s a really extreme moment when the Hebrew scriptures talk about when God’s kingdom comes, when God begins to bring heaven and earth back together, and that it will involve some human figure. That’s what was happening in the Old Testament and sometimes talked about as the son of man. Divine status like the son of man or a king in the line of David. Jesus occupies that personality, the Messiah King. He also explodes it on to a new level because he is the son of God. In a way that’s similar and very different to any of the sons of David before him.
It seems that this experience left a mark on how the early Jesus followers talked about God, because of what happened with Pentecost and what Jesus had said leading up to these events. There was a permanent mark on and in the awareness of the early Christians that the invisible presence of the Spirit is another distinct presence of God that is God and distinct from Jesus and distinct from the Father. Just like Jesus is both God and distinct from God, we find that space is created for the Spirit. The Spirit enabled those present so speak in other languages or tongues. It’s a great example of where Luke is overlaying an ancient story on top of this one when the presence of God shows up in a place that’s that there’s wind from heaven or fire over some remarkable circumstance. We have the burning bush, there’s the fire there. The narrative of the burning bush opens on Mount Sinai. God says to Moses, “This is your job, Moses. When you rescue the people from Egypt, bring them right here to worship on this mountain,” That’s Exodus 3:12. Then he comes with fire to the tabernacle, and it’s all taking place at Sinai. In Ezekiel’s vision, the ancient of days are described as fire. The God’s chariot that Ezekiel sees, in Daniel’s vision of the ancient of days, there’s brightness and there’s fire flowing out, and those are all images of God over the holy of holies, over the Ark of the Covenant. They’re hovering around this temple imagery. We remembered recently in 2 Chronicles chapter 7 when Solomon builds the temple in Jerusalem, the tabernacle fire and glory transfers to the temple. The glory, fire, wind now floats around and above the temple. The commonality is this, but the marking out of temple space, fire from heaven, this is heaven and earth, places where heaven and earth meet. Temple spaces become places where God’s appearance manifests itself with this physical phenomenon of the look that all look the same. People are terrified, there’s a cloud, there’s wind, there’s fire. It feels it’s a bit of a storm, a violent rushing wind. Luke phrases it here in Acts 2:3, it talks about the wind, singular, entering the room, but when he talks about the fire he pauses and he really narrows down that description where he says, “There appeared to them tongues like fire distributing themselves, resting over each one.” He spends time describing it because it’s really important. If we have Mount Sinai and the fire coming over the temple, and now we have the same or inspiring experience coming over God’s people in Jerusalem, having been told to wait for the Holy Spirit, then this is God at work. The people who know the background would know this.
Paul the Apostle had already worked out language for this concept of heaven and earth becoming one, but no longer in the temple: that you are the temple of God. The whole community of Jesus followers are the temple. It’s happening at Pentecost which means it’s the foundation moment, it’s the formation of the new temple. If the Messiah, the king from the line of David, has been raised up in all classic messianic promises in the Hebrew Scriptures, “I’ll raise up your seed after you,” he tells David, and “He will build a temple for my name “ in Samuel 2:7. What’s the expectation was that a king would be raised up into political power, and the physical temple being built or rebuilt. It’s Jesus being raised up from the dead, and then a spiritual temple was built, but it is a physical temple, it’s made of people. Just like heaven and earth met in the body, the person of Jesus, that’s the claim being made here. This is a new temple language which makes perfect sense of what happens next.
In verse five, Luke poses that scene, “Now there were Jews dwelling in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven.” It’s Pentecost, hundreds of thousands are there. When this sound occurred, a crowd came together, bewildered because each one of them, that is Jews from all over, each one of them was hearing them: the small crowd of Jesus followers speaking in his own language. This is Luke supplying us here with a list. He names 15 places Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Persians, that’s modern-day Iran. We’ve got Mesopotamia, Babylon, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Turkey Pamphylia, and North Africa, Egypt, Libya, Cyrene also into Europe, Rome, the island of Crete off Italy, Arabs, way off to the east in the Saudi Arabian peninsula. In other words, Luke has just painted a picture on that of the whole world. That’s the equivalent of saying the whole wide world. It’s multicultural and it’s mostly mono-ethnic. These people are coming from generations and generations as if they’ve lived in these places. Jerusalem felt very international, very multicultural, but they’re all there because of their ties to their ethnic heritage as Jews. They all have different languages and cultures now, but they’re all Jewish by identity. That’s important because the whole question surrounds, when is the time that Jesus is going to restore the kingdom to the tribes of Israel? At Pentecost the tribes are not scattered, they are gathered here in Jerusalem for the celebration.
Then Peter gets up and he gives the famous Pentecost speech using words from the Hebrew prophets and Psalms, weaving together language of the Old Testament with the new story of Jesus. It seems that Luke composes Acts chapter two, perhaps with an eye toward the Prophet Ezekiel because the phrase, the whole house of Israel, is important for Ezekiel’s view of the restoration from exile. That it will be a time when the tribes come back, reunited, that they are reunited here in the land. That’s a key prophetic hope. Ezekiel has multiple scenes of talking about how the reunified new covenant, new heart, new spirit, people of God will be created by the pouring out of God’s Spirit. This is all an important theme in Ezekiel. Then also, he has a role for what he calls just a new David. He doesn’t say, Messiah, he just uses the name David to refer to the Messiah and messianic King. Luke’s giving every clue that what’s happening here at Pentecost is the renewal of Israel, the formation of the unified tribes, all the tribes are there or represented.
The point is, it’s happening on a day when Jerusalem is full of more of the representative tribes than on any other day and that’s the day when Pentecost happens. We’re told that 3,000 came to give their allegiance to Jesus and then hundreds more in the days that follow. It seems to me that the question that the disciples asked is being answered here. When is it going to happen? Peter says, “Listen, here’s what’s going to go out to all nations, it is happening now and the power, God’s energy, God’s Spirit, is going to come for you.” What are they doing? They’re telling the story of God’s mighty deeds, which now includes the story of Jesus the Messiah, not just for the Jews but for the whole world. Peter’s sermon tells a story of God being at work here to bless the nations through Abraham, through that whole Old Testament story. He sent the king, you rejected Him, but God vindicated Him. He’s exalted Him as Messiah. Here’s your chance to recognize your Messiah and thousands of Jews from all over the world do.
It’s a new covenant, a new promise, a new way, the way Luke tells the story, the way Peter talks, everything that the prophets hope for, this is the new renewal, the re-gathering of Israel from among the exiles to form the nucleus of the New Covenant Israel with their hearts transformed by the Spirit. This is the coming of the kingdom of God to a multicultural crowd in Jerusalem. Some people have also drawn attention to another thematic connection, that of Babel. That the confusion of language at Babel in Genesis: it’s like a reversal of that here at Pentecost. The idea of Babel was an act of human arrogance and self-exaltation which led to confusion of all the languages when the people tried to build a structure to heaven and God moved the languages so they couldn’t understand one another. Here it’s the reunification of language to form the new seed of Abraham. It’s in the background. Luke doesn’t even draw attention to it. You just have to know that story to see it.
Pentecost: we’ve got the new temple ruled by the exalted son of David, His renewed covenant people from the tribes. The new temple is being planted and being built here in Jerusalem through the believers of Jesus and it comes into conflict with the physical temple or the leaders of the physical temple. Then the tale of two temples is going to lead to conflict and that conflict is going to culminate in the first martyr, Stephen, who we looked at a few weeks ago. That closes the Jerusalem movement because, with the martyrdom of Stephen, the disciples scatter outside the city and start going out.
What we have been building up to in these past few weeks in the speeches from people in the book of Acts, people who speak like Peter and Stephen and Paul, is that the temple is you. You are where God resides. The presence of God is in His church, in His people. That is why Pentecost is worth celebrating because the fullness of God can now live in each one of us, enabling us to love our neighbours, to care for our world as if Jesus were here with us in person because He is. He is in you and He’s with you and He is for you. Pentecost is cause for celebration because God is here. The same message that was brought at Christmas, Emmanuel, God with us, is the same message now with a twist. Not only God with us, but God in us.
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