As we come to Pentecost, our main text (in the lectionary and for preaching) is Acts 2. At one level the text is straightforward: the Twelve are completed by the addition of Matthias; they wait with other disciples as Jesus had commanded; the Spirit comes; Peter preaches; and the ‘church’ is born. But it is not quite as simple as that. For one thing, this is not quite the ‘church’ as we known it, since the significance of the completion of the Twelve is that they should be witnesses to Israel of the Jewish messiah Jesus and although there are hints (as we shall see) of the wider gentile mission, that does not happen at Pentecost. In fact, Ben Witherington (in his social scientific commentary on Acts) comments:
No text in Acts has received more scrutiny than Acts 2. Whole theologies and denominations have been built up around the Acts 2 accounts. We must therefore analyse the text carefully. (p 128)
I offer here some (non-exhaustive) observations on some of the implications of the narrative.
Luke’s writing style is quite distinctive amongst the four gospels, with more complex sentences (using subordinate clauses rather then e.g. Mark’s parataxis ‘and…and…and…’) and more extensive vocabulary. He summarises Peter’s speech at Pentecost in a way that other ancient authors would recognise (comparing favourably with Plutarch’s Parallel Lives) and we see this in both the introduction (‘Peter stood up…and raised his voice…’ Acts 2.14; note the contrast with Jesus habitually sitting to teach) and the conclusion (‘With many other words he warned them and pleaded with them…’ Acts 2.40) where Luke uses standard terminology in summarising Peter’s speech. We also see in Peter’s speech some quite careful rhetorical developments. He begins by addressing the crowd rather factually as ‘Jews men and residents of Jerusalem’ in Acts 2.14, moves to recognising them as ‘men of Israel’ in Acts 2.22, and by Acts 2.29 is addressing them as ‘brothers’, indicating the growing warmth that leads to the positive response of the crowd at the end.
But Luke is also looking backwards and looking forwards. The pattern of this early section of Acts—the promise of the Spirit, the reception of the Spirit, preaching in the power of the Spirit—matches the early ministry narrative in Luke, where John the Baptist’s promise of the Spirit is following by Jesus’ reception of the Spirit and his preaching at Nazareth. And Luke’s recording of Peter’s speech is followed later in Acts by his summarising of speeches of Paul, part of his careful balancing of the mirrored ministries of Peter and Paul throughout the text. The interest in the connection between the Spirit and power the we find in the gospel continues through into Acts in numerous ways.
Together, these mean that we are not simply reading Peter’s own speech and theology—we are clearly reading Luke’s interpretation of Peter’s speech, just as in the gospels we are reading each gospel writer’s interpretation of Jesus ministry and teaching. That is no reason to doubt the reliability of the accounts, but just to note that we are reading what Luke has understood, and we shouldn’t be surprised to find Lukan themes and concerns showing through.
It is also worth noting that Luke show little interest in questions that developed later. Although he clearly sees Pentecost as foundational, and the Spirit as central to Christian experience, he is not offering us a programmatic account of Christian experience. Later in his narrative, the Spirit sometimes comes prior to water baptism (Acts 8) and at other times comes following water baptism (Acts 10). There is no evidence of the concerns we find quite early in the second century about church order, leadership, or the emergence of monarchical episcopacy (having a single bishop), nor questions of the baptism of infant (the mention of households is rather ambiguous) nor the issue of the forgiveness of serious sin following baptism. All this points to Acts being a ‘primitive’, first-century text.
Fulfilment of OT hope
These early chapters of Acts are striking in their dependence on OT texts. So the motive for the replacement of Judas as one of the Twelve is based on the reading of a passage from the Psalms (though not read in quite the way we might…!), and Peter’s speech explaining what is happening is rooted in various passages from the OT. This is the consistent theme of the apostolic preaching in Acts and elsewhere, and we find exactly this emphasis in Paul’s theology as well. In 1 Cor 15.3, Paul reminds his readers of what was passed to him and he passed on ‘as of first importance’ that Jesus died for our sins and was raised ‘according to the Scriptures’; in our creeds, ‘Scriptures’ is probably taken to mean the NT, but of course for Paul this is a reference to the OT. The consistent distinctive of the gospel accounts of Jesus is that his ministry was the fulfilment of OT hope, something completely absent from the so-called ‘apocryphal gospels’ (which are not gospels at all in terms of their genre).
In fact, it is not just Peter’s quotations that come from the OT; so do other parts of his speech. The phrases ‘let it be put in your ears’ (most ETs ‘listen carefully’ Acts 2.14 b) and ‘birth pangs of death’ (ETs ‘agony of death’ Acts 2.24) occur only here in the NT and are phrases from the Greek OT (the Septuagint, ‘LXX’).
Moreover, what has happened here fulfils the final hopes of the OT. Peter is clear that ‘this is that’ (Acts 2.16), that ‘this’ experience of the Spirit poured out is ‘that’ about which Joel prophesied would happen ‘in the last days’. There is no doubt that Peter and Luke both understood the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the outpouring of the Spirit, as theologically indicating that the End has come, that this age is now passing away and the promised new age of the kingdom of God has broken in. So we see in the gospels ‘darkness at noon’ at Jesus’ crucifixion fulfilling the predicted darkness of the sun, and we also find in Paul’s theology that the resurrection life of the believer means that the ‘old has gone and the new has come—new creation’ (2 Cor 5.17). Luke doesn’t appear to think that this means the end of history, but the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was certainly seen as the turning of the ages.
Part of that end-times hope in the prophets (especially the later parts of Isaiah) was that all nations would be drawn to Zion, and somehow the whole world would be included in the blessings God has for his people. We do not see that immediately in the Pentecost narrative—but we do see hints of what is to come later in Acts. The list of Jews from the Diaspora who here the disciples speaking in tongues is (as Witherington notes) difficult to make any systematic sense of as a list, and seems rather artificially to have distinguished Jews and proselytes from Rome (or perhaps, who are Roman citizens, in keeping with Luke’s interest in people of influence). But perhaps the most important thing in the list is that there are 17 peoples listed, and 153 is the triangle of 17, both numbers signifying the fulfilment of the promise of the Spirit bringing life to the whole world in Ezekiel 47.
Peter also provides a clue to this in his use of the phrase ‘for all who are far off’ in Acts 2.39; in context, this presumably refers to Jews in the Diaspora (who are physically far away) or perhaps the ‘lost sheep of the House of Israel’, those lost ‘sinners’ whom Jesus called to repentance in his ministry. But very soon this phrase comes to be a way of referring to Gentiles, in contrast to the Jews who are ‘those who are near’ (Eph 2.17). Thus Luke and Paul share this bipartite understanding of humanity in the gospel; the two (Jews and Gentiles) are now made one in Christ, returning us to the unity of humanity in the pristine creation as God originally made it. Thus Acts 15 is not an example of the inclusivity of the gospel, which can be reapplied to any contemporary group; it is about the decisive fulfilment of OT hope by means of the outpouring of the Spirit.
There is an extraordinary, powerful and multi-dimensional Christological focus to Peter’s preaching. At a trivial level, Peter’s speech talks about Jesus a lot—but it is worth pausing to see exactly how he understands him. First, it is Jesus, in his death and resurrection, who has brought about the fulfilment of God’s purposes as set out in Scripture. Second, the climax of all that has happened is the ascension—Jesus is now seated at the right hand of the Father, and it is to this reality that we must respond. Thirdly, this means that Jesus is now Messiah (the fulfilment of the hope of Israel) and Lord. But earlier, the ‘Lord’ is Yahweh, the God of Israel—now Jesus shares in this title, and he is the Lord whom the people call on to be saved. Again, we find this incorporation of Jesus into the person of the God of Israel, creating a kind of Christological monotheism, all through Paul’s theology, from his adaptation of the Shema in 1 Cor 8.6, through his identical use of Joel 2 in Romans 10.13, to his application of the monotheism of Isaiah to Jesus in his ‘Christ-hymn’ in Phil 2.9–11.
Luke reinforces this Christological focus in the very way he structures his summary of Peter’s speech. The late Martyn Menken observed:
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.
We also need to note that, in a Christian theological context, we consider the Holy Spirit the third ‘person’ of the Trinity. But in Peter’s context, and the understanding of those he is listening to, the Spirit is simply the presence and power of God himself at work amongst his people. If Jesus is the one who is able to dispense the Spirit (as Peter claims), then Jesus is the one who mediates God’s own presence and power, again assuming Jesus is incorporated into the person of God himself.
It is also worth noting in passing that Luke avoids any language of God ‘punishing’ Jesus on the cross; although God allowed it, it is clear that responsibility for Jesus death sits squarely with those who executed him.
We might also want to note the implicit significance of the timing of the gift of the Spirit. Pentecost was the festival of FirstFruits, when the very first of the harvest had come ripe and was offered to God (the weather is better in Israel than it is here!), and this shapes our understanding of both the Spirit as the first fruits of what is to come in the new creation (Rom 8.23) but also therefore those who have the Spirit as the first fruits of the new creation itself (James 1.18, Rev 14.4). In rabbinical Judaism, Pentecost was also celebrated as the time of the giving of the law on Sinai (as we heard this morning on Thought for the Day), and that offers a context for the discussion of the relationship between the law and the Spirit in Paul. If Jesus was born in September, around the Festival of Tabernacles, this makes the language of ‘tabernacling’ in John 1.14 a kind of Jewish festival pun. And given that Jesus died at Passover, so that he is our Passover sacrifice (1 Cor 5.7), then you have the gospel as thoroughly Jewish in shape, rooted in the three major Jewish pilgrim festivals.
Lastly, this speech of Peter’s offers his (or Luke’s) most comprehensive understanding of discipleship, in the sense that it sets out most fully the key issues in Christian faith. There is a central focus on the person of Jesus; he is understood to be the fulfilment of God’s promises; the crucial affirmation is that ‘Jesus is Lord’, which quickly becomes the summary of what it means to be a member of this new movement (compare Rom 10.9 and 1 Cor 12.3); and Peter sets out the three primary markers of Christian initiation in repentance, water baptism, and receiving of the Spirit. Although all these elements are included in various ways later in the narrative, there is nowhere else where they are included so clearly together.
It is no wonder this passage has been so thoroughly explored, and (along with Luke’s summary statement of the nature of the early Christian community in Acts 2.42) no wonder that this passage has been so influential.
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