Can we find fresh insight at Pentecost?

This Sunday is the Feast of Pentecost, when we remember, celebrate and re-engage with the first giving of the Spirit at Pentecost as recounted in Acts 2. With any of these annual celebrations, we are always confronted with the question of whether there is anything fresh to say. Commentators note that this is one of the most pored over passages in the whole New Testament—and in fact it is laden with theological significance in just about every verse. There are some puzzles which few have solved (and I will offer a solution to one of them!), and of course we need to remember that, whenever we are preaching, there are people listening who might not have reflected on this passage before. And after I had done my reading and preparation for this post, I realised that I had written on this last year—but what I planned was quite different from what I wrote previously! So there is hope!

I also found it sobering to work with a different—and older—commentary on this passage, Howard Marshall’s Tyndale Commentary, first published in 1980, and given to me as a gift when I started theological study by my sending church in 1990. It is full of insight and application, and I think for that reason has not been replaced in the revision of the series (for which I wrote my commentary on Revelation). I would thoroughly recommend it.

Pentecost is often called ‘the birthday of the church’. Marshall notes (p 67) that the Pentecost narrative occupies the same place in Acts as the birth narrative occupies in Luke’s gospel. But we can go further: there is a striking parallel between the words of Gabriel to Mary, and the words of Jesus to the disciples.

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1.35).

‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…’ (Acts 1.8)

In both cases, the Spirit will ‘come upon’ Mary or the disciples (and note, Acts 1.14, that Mary was amongst the disciples at Pentecost—she has seen this all before!), this will be accompanied by ‘receiving power’, and then something new will be brought to birth. There are earlier parallels here in descriptions of the people of God, awaiting deliverance by God from oppression in exile, as being in the ‘pains of childbirth’ (Isaiah 66.7f, Micah 4.10) and this is picked up by the image of the people of God awaiting the messiah in Rev 12.2. Paul also makes use of the image, though in a remarkable way, in Gal 4.19, where he tells the Galatians that he is in the pains of childbirth until Christ is born in them. The image is also used by Jesus in the ‘little apocalypse’ in relation to the longing for the age to come (Matt 24.8).

‘When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place’ (Acts 2.1). The ‘they…all’ here must refer back to the 120 referred to in Acts 1.15, rather than just the twelve apostles who are mentioned as the ones Jesus taught in Acts 1.2 and those standing with Peter in Acts 2.14. That implies that women, including Mary, were amongst those receiving the Spirit, and that in turn makes sense of Peter’s mention of Joel’s promise that the Spirit will be poured out on ‘sons and daughters…even on…men and women’ (Acts 2.17–18). It appears that, for Luke, the gift of the Spirit is given without distinction to men and women, as we might have expected from the way he describes women and men in the ministry of Jesus in his gospel.

It turns out that the ‘one place’ they are in (verse 1) is a ‘house’ (oikos, verse 2). This term can refer to any kind of domestic dwelling, and though it is used metaphorically to refer to the Jerusalem Temple (as the ‘house of God’) there is no suggestion here that that is the reference here. But what is interesting is the implication that, at some point between verse 2 and verse 14, when Peter stands to give his speech of explanation, the group have moved from the enclosed space out into the public square, to engage with those who are questioning the meaning of the events. What a contrast to the post-resurrection accounts, where they have hidden in a locked room ‘for fear of the Jewish leaders’! The coming of the Spirit dispels fear and leads God’s people out into proclamation!

Marshall notes that, contrary to most visual depictions (which always, of necessity, involve literalising a text), the coming of the Spirit is like a rushing wind, and the Spirit on each is as if (or ‘seemed to be like’, TNIV) tongues of fire—not literally so in either case. There are allusions here to OT theophanies, such as 2 Sam 22.16, Job 37.10 and Ezek 13.13, and especially the appearance of God at Sinai (Ex 19.18). We miss in English the double meaning of the Greek pneuma as both ‘wind’ and ‘Spirit’, which Jesus in John 3 makes much of in his dialogue with Nicodemus, and the link with the ‘breath of life’ that animates the first Adam in Gen 2.7 (that Paul draws on in 1 Cor 15.45). But the primary allusion is to the promise of John the Baptist that Jesus would ‘baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’ (Luke 3.16). This becomes a powerful Christological statement, which only makes sense with a Trinitarian understanding of God: the Spirit (presence and power) of God is sent by Jesus who baptises and fills his followers with the Spirit, who comes from the Father.

The outward and visible signs (wind, fire, speaking in tongues) point to an inward and spiritual reality, which is expressed by the language of ‘filling’. Although this appears to be an impersonal metaphor, likening the Spirit to inanimate realities such as water and air, in contrast to the personal metaphors of ‘Father’ and ‘Son’, it is used all through the New Testament in several ways.

The word is used when people are given an initial endowment of the Spirit to fit them for God’s service (Acts 9.17, Luke 1.15) and also when they are inspired to make important utterances (Acts 4.8, 13, 13.9); related words are used to describe the continuous process of being filled with the Spirit (Acts 13.52, Eph 5.18) or the corresponding state of being full (Acts 6.3, 7.55, 11.24, Luke 4.1). These references indicate that a person already filled with the spirit can receive a fresh filling for a specific task, or a continuous filling. (Marshall, p 69).

Or, as graphically put by Michael Green in a sermon I heard as an undergraduate: ‘Why do I need to be filled again? Because I leak!’

Though the language of ‘filling’ can indicate initial, repeated and ongoing experiences, the word ‘baptism’ cannot (contrary to much mainline Pentecostal teaching). The word ‘baptize’ is never used for anything other than an initial experience. But the range of others words (including ‘pouring out’, Acts 2.17, 10.45) and ‘receiving’ (Acts 10.47) indicate that Luke sees this reality of the Spirit as something that is normative for both the beginning and the continuation of the life of discipleship.

The description of those residing in Jerusalem is both fascinating and puzzling—but offers some surprising insights. First, Luke notes that these were ‘devout’ people (Acts 2.5), in keeping with his emphasis that Jesus came to call both ‘sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5.32) and the devout to see their hopes of deliverance fulfilled. For Luke, it is simply nonsense to suggest that Jesus didn’t mix with, appeal to, or work with ‘the religious’; his problem is with those who are complacent and hypocritical.

The speech that Luke composes and places on the lips of these visitors is, of course, an artifice, as are in some sense all the speeches in Acts; they are (like all gospel material) far too short to be realistic. But what they are is Luke’s summary of the key points of what was said, recorded (inevitably) through his interpretive lens. In this case, he presents the conversation amongst the crowd as a kind of Greek chorus, in which they all speak in unison.

Commentators universally note that the number and ordering of the places mentioned is a puzzle to which nowhere has a convincing answer. There is actually some sense of order; the first group are broadly speaking in the East of the Roman Empire; then we move to Judea and head north through central Turkey; then we move to the West of Turkey and North Africa; then further West to Rome, but with a jump south to Arabia. And of course there are many omissions in each direction.

But if the order makes little sense, the number is significant. The list is grouped to mention 4 + 4 (v 9) + 2 + 3 (10) + 4 = 17. Our attention is drawn to this by the odd separation of ‘Jews and proselytes’ from Rome, making what would have been 16 names into 17. Why does this matter? Because of the connection with Ezekiel’s prophecy of the water flowing from the temple, and the importance of 153 in the catch of fish in John 21. As I cite in the discussion of John 21:

In Ezekiel 47, we see baptismal waters flowing from the overturned Bronze Sea of the Temple, flowing out to the boundaries of the Land. Remember that Jesus claims to be the source of such living waters. In Ezekiel 47:9, we are told that “very many fish” will live in the (formerly) Dead Sea as a result of these living waters. In verse 10 we read, “And it will come about that fishermen will stand beside it; from En-Gedi to En-Eglaim there will be a place for spreading of nets. Their fish will be acording to their kinds, like the fish of the Great [Mediterranean] Sea, very many.”

The Dead Sea is the boundary of the new land after the exile, and a place of contact with gentiles. The fishes are clearly gentile nations. The fact that the sea is formerly dead and now is brought to life surely indicates the influence of Restoration Israel over the nations before Christ, and points to the greater influence of the Kingdom after Pentecost.

Now, it is well known that Hebrew letters are also numbers: the first nine letters being 1-9, the next nine being 10-90, and the last five being 100-400. “Coding” words with numbers is called gematria. If we substract the “En” from En-Gedi and En-Eglaim, since “en” means “spring,” then the following emerges:

Gedi = 17 (ג = 3; ד = 4; י = 10)

Eglaim = 153 (ע = 70; ג = 3; ל = 30; י = 10; מ = 40)

Again, this seems too close to the mark to be a coincidence. Once again, we have the number 17 (Gedi, mentioned first) and its relative 153 (Eglaim, mentioned second) connecting to the evangelization of the gentiles, symbolized by fishing.

Conclusion: The number 153 represents the totality of the nations of the world, which will be drawn in the New Creation.

John, in his story of the fishing trip in John 21, makes use of his ‘double meaning’ of the literal and the symbolic to teach us that the gospel will reach all the world. Luke, using his historiographical account of Pentecost, tells us the same thing. The deliberate listing of the range of places both anticipates the areas where the gospel will reach, but also hints at the means; we later read about Jews being dispersed from Jerusalem, who ‘accidentally’ share the good news of Jesus the Jewish messiah with gentiles in Acts 8.4. Truly, salvation has gone out from the Jews (John 4.22).

(Possibly inadvertently, the lectionary points to us making this connection between Acts and John, by suggesting that we should also read John 7.37-39, which includes the obscure saying of Jesus, ‘as Scripture has said, out of his stomach/side will flow rivers of living water’. I agree with Richard Bauckham that this is an allusion to Jesus as the new temple of Ezekiel’s vision, from whom the Spirit flows, symbolised by the water flowing with the blood in John 19.34.)

Marshall argues (p 68) that this is not, as commonly preached, an ‘undoing’ of the confusion of Babel (Gen 11), since Luke offers no echoes of any OT text from that episode. I would also note that undoing Babel would imply eliminating linguistic difference and giving everyone a single language to speak. In fact, the gospel does something quite different—uniting people in one community whilst retaining their different ethnic, social and cultural differences, expressed in the four-fold phrase ‘every tribe, language, people and nation’ that we find seven times in the Book of Revelation.

Marshall also dismisses the idea that the giving of the Spirit contrasts with the gift of the law, which is also celebrated at the festival of Pentecost. I think this is just a convenient way of reading a kind of antinomianism into the New Testament; both Jesus and Paul see the gospel as a fulfilling not an abolition of the law, and both are just as concerned about outward expressions of devotion and obedience as they are about the inward reality of intimacy with God made real by the Spirit.

There are three important things to note about Peter’s speech from Acts 2.14 onwards. The first is that he sees the gift of the Spirit as neither an incidental consequence of Jesus’ death and resurrection nor a temporary thing for a limited period of time. Rather, he uses the language of Joel to claim that we are now in a new era, where the future age has broken into the present. ‘This’, the outpouring of the Spirit with its accompanying signs, ‘is that’ about which Joel wrote.

Peter’s speech as set out by Luke includes two intriguing changes. First, the times ‘after this’ (LXX Joel 3.1) has now become ‘the last days’; and ‘wonders in heaven, and on earth, blood and fire’ has become ‘wonders in heaven and signs on earth’. Luke’s Peter is clearly linking the gift of the Spirit with the hoped for ‘day of the Lord’ at the end of the age. Just as Jesus has preached the coming of the kingdom, breaking in as the new age and reality whilst the old age has not yet passed away, so Peter describes the coming of the Spirit as another aspect of that partially realised eschatology.

(We find a similar dynamic in Rev 6.12, where the age to come marked by the sun darkening, the moon turning to blood, and stars falling, breaks into the world with the opening of the sixth seal.)

So the gift of the Spirit is not a flash in the pan, but the coming of the new age—a first fruits of the new reality, poured out at the Festival of First Fruits at Pentecost.

Secondly, it is in every way focussed on what God has done in the person of Jesus. Peter’s speech is structured in two parallel parts:

SubjectPart 1 (vv14b–24)Part 2 (vv 24–36)
Opening scriptureFrom Joel 2 about the Spirit poured out in the last daysFrom Psalm 16 about ‘your holy one will not see decay’
Account of what happened to JesusHis ministry of signs and wondersHis death and resurrection
God’s action and the response called forGod raised him upGod exalted him to his right hand and poured out the Spirit

The late Martyn Menken, in his book on Numerical Literary Techniques in John, comments in passing that Luke also uses numerical composition in his gospel and Acts, and this is a prime example.

There are also several instances of isopsephia in Acts, where the number of syllables of an episode or speech is equal to the numerical value of an important name or word occurring in or related to the passage in question (such as we found concerning John 1.1-18, where both the number of syllables and the numerical value of monogenes are 496). Peter’s speech in Acts 2.14-b-36 is made up of two equal halves: 444 syllables in 2.14b-24, and again 444 syllables in 2.25-36. Their sum, 888, is the numerical value of the name Iesous, a number which was famous in this quality in the second century, witness Irenaeus’ Aversus Haereses 1.15.2.

In other words, this is all about Jesus.

But thirdit is also worth noting the constant interplay here between God as Father, Jesus, and the Spirit. The resurrection of Jesus and the pouring out of the Spirit were both things done by God and both testify that Jesus is both Lord and Messiah. So how should we respond to what God is doing? Believe in Jesus and receive the Spirit.

I hope that, in all this, you can find something new to explore this Pentecost Sunday!

For my other reflections on Pentecost, see:

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17 thoughts on “Can we find fresh insight at Pentecost?”

  1. A comment on 153 first, he he.
    Peter was first caught up with a catch of fish and after the resurrection here he is again surrounded by fish. I imagine him preoccupied in a nervous tension because he has not spoken to Jesus since his betrayal. What does he do? Count fish, and imagine how to divide then between the others. It won’t do. 153 divided by 7 = 21.857. But Jesus already has some fish. So, 153 + 1 divided by 7 = 22 fish each. Perfect Pi. Peter has come full circle since his first encounter. He is restored. 😉

  2. As ever, really worth the read – thank you!
    In respect your note: ‘What a contrast to the post-resurrection accounts, where they have hidden in a locked room ‘for fear of the Jewish leaders’! The coming of the Spirit dispels fear and leads God’s people out into proclamation!’
    ‘. . . for fear of the Jews’ is surely John’s prelude to Jesus’ personal, direct blessing of the Spirit (John 20:19ff). Contrast to Luke 24:50-52 with the disciples being continually in the Temple. ‘House’ could then stand for the temple – a simple explanation for presence of the many who heard their empowered witness.
    The idea of a cowering fearful gathering surely doesn’t fit the Luke-Acts narrative.
    Otherwise, as I say, a really helpful article.

    Derek Foster

  3. I think we can make a fairly strong argument that Luke is placing the pentecost event in the temple.
    – Luke 24 refers to how, after the ascension “they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
    – “place” and “house” are both used as shorthand for the temple.
    – This is pentecost, one of the huge festivals. Why wouldn’t they be in the temple for that?
    – Its 9.00am. The first prayer time. If it was their habit to be there, why were they not there at that important time?
    – Peter speaks to a large crowd – that doesn’t fit the zone of hte upper room
    – the large crowd speaks multiple languages. These people have traveled long distances as pilgrims. You would expect them to be in the temple at the 9.00am prayer. They’ve come all this way, why would would they be swanning around, looking at richer houses of Jerusalem, rather than in the temple?
    – Lots of people are baptised. There were mikvahs (places for washing) on the steps of the temple. That would be an ideal place to baptise people.

    If its placed in the temple, then this raises the interesting question – where did the fire come from. Is Luke envisioning the fire of God’s presence leaving the holy of holies (after all, the curtain was ripped, the division no longer is needed) and settling on his new people.
    If Luke were a film director, would he be showing that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit in via visual, narrative medium. Paul’s theology in visual form.

    I know this is out on a limb, but its not that crazy. And if I was doing the movie (or the 67th episode of “the chosen”) I’d do it that way.

    • It is out on a limb and given that Luke writes so carefully, we have to ask the question ‘Why doesn’t he say so?!’

      ‘House’ in an unqualified sense isn’t really a shorthand for temple; I don’t know of any text which says ‘They were in the house’ which means ‘They were in the temple’.

  4. Your first point, about the parallell with ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you’, couldn’t we dare to guess that was Mary’s insight?

  5. Sorry Ian, I think I’m from the main n the plain approach to narrative texts – I’ve never been convinced by counting syllables and using Gematria as a hermeneutic to access inspired meaning.

    I did fail my O level maths twice, and I think you read Maths at Oxford – which might cause us to lean one way or t’other

    I am not we need fresh insight here – what we need is the old thing itself – power from on high

    • Why would you prefer plain narrative…if the author actually intended other things as well?

      Yes, I know the numerology is not everyone’s cup of tea–ok, just go with the conclusion ‘The gospel is for everyone’. But some people who would not normally engage with the Bible find this stuff fascinating. And it is actually there in the text.

      I agree that we need power from on high—but I think the old/new thing is a false dichotomy. We always need new insights to draw us into the same old truths.

      • Well

        I really liked much of what u said and some of ur conclusions

        Just think you can find anything numerically if u do the gymnastics Long enough and don’t think a case has been made for it being there – deep and meaningfully hid in numbers / big difference between what author intended and what some mathmos can find

        I do not think the authors sat down with a calculator or slide rule to work really hard to hide meanings in letters n sentences – And I think it could even be an abstraction from the main point and authorial and divine intent


        • Take a rose and a picture of a rose. They look similar but the real one has infinite detail right down to the atomic level and potential to create more roses. The picture only looks like a rose. Therefore the bible, being the word of God , by its nature is like a real rose. It is possible to inspect it under the microscope and find patterns, and detail that even the writers were unaware of. But if I gave my wife a rose and she picked the petals off then spent hours with it alone I’d be peeved!
          I love the detail in the bible and I love the unexpected treasure in it. But you have a point.

        • I would agree that the main meaning of any text in the Gospels or OT/NT is whatever it says in the written word. But just because we today in the West don’t typically use such techniques as gematria in modern writings doesnt mean we can dismiss their use in ancient writings by ancient authors in different cultures.

          The question to ask is – would the readers/hearers (at least some) of the original text have an understanding of specific numbers referenced?


  6. Tell me the old old story.
    Nevertheless, marriage theme has been identified as part of Shavouot, Pentecost, by some Messianic Jews relating it to a covenant the of marriage theme at Sinai, which the nation immediately broke, after saying ” I do” that is “We will”. and the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, was to enable the people to be, and remain faithful to God.

  7. Hi Ian,
    Can you give us a list of numbers and their meanings?
    I am aware of 10 being full power. Pentecost was 10 days after the ascension?
    Roman fractions were in twelfths. The apostles were 12 parts of one whole.
    Knowing these symbols would help when reading the bible.

  8. Thanks, as always Ian.

    For me, and I don’t know many others who share my view strongly, I think the best thing we can do with the Pentecost story is to ditch the images of little ‘tongues’ of fire hovering over the disciples’ heads. And also to disassociate the fire image more generally from our ideas about the Spirit.

    Better, I think, to read the passage as a story like this – simply as languages sweeping into a room, causing a sound like a rushing wind, which then separates on each person enabling them to speak in a different language understandable to the crowd gathering outside in response to this crazy cacophony of sound. These languages, or tongues, sweep thorough the room like a fire sweeping through a forest.

    When we get this simple and consistent image in our minds it helps clarify the main point that when the Spirit falls, just as when he fell on, or anointed, or immersed Jesus, and all the numerous people mentioned in the OT, people begin to speak, prophesy and declare the works of God. (Luke 4 emphasises the word proclaim 3 times)

    Is it too bold to say that the primary gift of the Spirit is speech, when we take an overview of scripture? Certainly I think that this story is about exactly this – about disk being given to all kinds of people, young and old, male and female.

    Isn’t the point of Pentecost simply that everyone gets to speak and everyone listening in the city gets to hear about God in a language they can understand.

    This is my prayer for this Sunday. That our churches are filled, or immersed into the Spirit, like a sponge is filled by being baptized or immersed into a bucket of water, and becomes transformed in the process and that we are so filled with him that we can’t help ourselves, like the first disciples start speaking out the wonders of God as his witnesses in every location God has placed us. Certainly, we each need a personal Pentecost to enable us to speak with authority.

    This works too, as both breath and water are the primary metaphors for the Spirit, while the image of fire is almost always negative, and associated with judgement, destruction or, at best, purifying. Jesus comes to baptise us into the Spirit – his life giving breath – but he also brings the fire of purification and justice. His winnowing fork is in his hand. These are two separate actions and two separate images.

    The trouble with my argument is not its logic, but our emotional attachment to countless images of little flames above the disciples’ heads which many of us have seen since childhood. I don’t know when this image started to take root but the word ‘tongue’ is best simply translated ‘language’ in every situation in the NT, as far as I can see, just as it is in our own Bibles and indeed in the rest of the story in Acts 2.

    Not sure, how new this idea is, but I don’t hear it many other places.

  9. The list of nations is, it seems, able to offer some suggested “answers” and continues to raise questions. Numerology is an answer but does not explain why those countries or in that order, and why the Cretans (liars! according to Paul) and Arabs are left to the end
    What is interesting, when linking Acts with Luke is that the list of the nations from which these people come echoes and challenges the Roman habit of naming all their territories, and the Pax Augusta of Luke 2- except that now the gospel is being heard across all the nations of the Empire.
    Just as Jesus the true Messiah is born at the point where the Emperor taxes the whole world, so now God’s Spirit reaches across that whole world, first to people from all the world who happen to be in Jerusalem, and then in the following chapters to the ends of the earth (so Philip to the Ethiopian) and to the centre of Rome.
    I find the idea of tongues of fire like little candles on their heads rather twee. I prefer the idea of the Burning Bush and some rather more serious fire along with the rushing wind (I’m not sure if I am reading into the text here or if this is a reasonable link to make. And Luke is so concerned to keep the inner-room experience linked to the speaking out experience that he rushes from the one to the other without even time to let the disciples out of the room and into the street and to the Temple! Luke is clear this is not just an inner spiritual boost but the boost for mission and proclaiming.
    Current travel restrictions and rules on social gathering of course mean that neither the first nor the second part of the narrative could happen today!

    • Yes, I agree that the numerology doesn’t offer a complete answer—but it provides at least some.

      But the Roman naming of territories doesn’t provide an answer either does it?

      • I think it provides an answer as to why Luke names the territories, but not why those exactly. If Luke is claiming in some way that the gospel is reaching across the Roman world right at the beginning of Acts, possibly parallel to Luke 2, and this is done in part by using a Roman custom of naming territories, that is quite significant and ensures we see the outward facing part of Pentecost.
        As to the names of the territories, I am worried by the Cretans and to some extent the Arabs. Are they two later additions to get the numerology right, or are they deemed to be rather different sorts of people, possibly also added in at the end of the list rather than in the broad east to west sweep of the other names.
        We do know that the writer of Titus is no fan of Cretans, and I wonder if Arabs were also looked down on, though I can find no contemporary evidence to support this. Are these two included as also-rans? which is both great that they are in, but worrying that there is potentially implicit racism within the writing (as in Titus). But that is a different thread and angle.

  10. The Arabs or Nabateans from whence Herod came? were probably considered the epitome of colaboration with Rome.
    Perhaps Cretans and Arabs describe two contrasting or polar opposite types of pagan? Therefore the whole spread of Paganism is covered geographically, sophisticated (Nabatean) and coarse (Cretan).


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