The Spirit of life forming the people of God 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. This 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 that this 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 no-one 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 (v 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 1) 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.

Thus Pentecost involves a profound personal experience that transforms fear into courage and hope. It turns the believers from looking in to looking outward, and enables them to offer a message of life to all people, so that the Spirit can form the people of God into a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and diverse group centred around the worship and proclamation of God as Father, Son and Spirit.

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

For my other reflections on Pentecost, see:

(A previous version of this was published last year.)

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20 thoughts on “The Spirit of life forming the people of God at Pentecost”

  1. Marshall’s commentary, along with R.T. France’s volume on the Gospel of Matthew, are easily the best Tyndale N.T. Commentaries of the eighties. Both ahead of their times in terms of the series.

    Where do I find Richard Bauckham’s argument that Jesus is the new temple foretold by Ezekiel?

  2. At St Gabriels, Sunderland, there is a memorial stone in the wall dated September 1907 WHICH states: WHEN THE FIRE OF THE LORD FELL, IT BURNED UP THE DEBT. Church members were praying about the debt on their new hall, and saw flames of fire over each other. Their vicar, Alexander Boddy, is credited among the founders of the Pentecostal denominations.

  3. … 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
    On the contrary, Trinitarianism does not make sense of the passage. The Spirit comes only after Jesus has left the earth, because the Spirit is that of the Father and of the Son, not a separate person of the godhead. So Paul in Rom 8:9-11 speaks of the Spirit of (possessive) God, ‘his’ Spirit, interchangeably with the Spirit of Christ. It is the Spirit of Christ that is in us (v. 10), not a third person of the godhead.

    ‘As Scripture has said, out of his stomach/side will flow rivers of living water’
    The word here is koilia, ‘belly’; it does not mean ‘side’.

    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.
    Luke echoes Gen 11:9 when he describes the onlookers’ reaction as being ‘confounded’ (Acts 2:6), the very same word as in the LXX. The point is not that Pentecost eliminates linguistic difference and gives everyone a single language to speak, but that it gives believers a single Spirit, a power and a unity that overcomes linguistic barriers (Gal 3:28).

    Marshall is also wrong to dismiss the idea that the giving of the Spirit contrasts with the gift of the law. The Law was given on the 50th day (Ex 19:11), so there is clearly a parallel. Whether the point is one of contrast or of the Law being fulfilled is a question to worked out in the light of NT theology.

    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.
    There is anything clear about this. The ‘Day of the Lord’ is still in the future, as Rev 6:12 does make clear.

      • I believe that ‘the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men’. I even believe that Genesis 1-3 are true, inspired, and authoritative. Accordingly, I evaluate all theological teaching in the light of Scripture. Would you agree that’s best?

        • Jehovah’s Witnesses would concur with that Steven.
          They don’t believe Jesus is God the Son, nor that Holy Spirit is God, as I’m sure you know.

          • I’m not sure I get your point. Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus is the Son of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and that (the) Holy Spirit comes from God. Let us please stick with the points raised in/in relation to the blog.

  4. Jesus is God, Holy Spirit is God,(not mere power or energy) Father is God, Steven, orthodox Christianity.
    It seems that a simple answer to the question Ian asked of you is, no.
    It is relevant and central to Ian’s article.

      • I think i hear you brother – i think too much of our problem is trying to put into words that which which is absolutely indefinable. ( I always find the discussion interesting ). And i think we need to ask ourselves why we need to define things especially something as beyond us as G-D………surely it’s our need for control, an egoistic practice…….and Jesus is reported as saying that by our fruit (behviour) would his followers be known…not a mention of doctrine, tribalisation……apart from the manifestation of heart-centred love for G-D…………..

  5. If this blog were the Pet Fanciers Club International it would be right to only look at the pets on display and judge them for their nice behaviour and fluffiness. However, this blog is more like the Cat Breeders International Show, and Mr Robinson has brought a box along that the judges want to peek into. I think they think it is a rabbit.
    PS, Steve R., last time I tried explaining my views, here, on the Trinity I was laughed out of court.

    • It’s been joked, even among GP’s that when you get 4 GP’s together you get 12 different opinions.
      Try herding cats! We had a cat and a rabbit as pets. When the rabbit was on ocassion given free range in the house, they would fight like cats and dogs. Except our cat and dogs did not fight once territory was established.

  6. Lists of places (as well as geneaologies) are not our preferred hunting ground for deeper theological truths, but they matter to the writers of our biblical texts.
    The list of places in Acts mentioned is a strange one.
    Thanks Ian for pointing to the gematria that may be in play and the number of nations. I do find that somewhat esoteric, but the results are striking.
    But that does not answer why those places / peoples get mentioned not others. Why the concentration on two particular areas with multiple peoples, and wide gaps elsewhere? Why no-one from mainland Greece, but Cretans? Why the particularity about the area round Cyrene? Why are Arabs and Cretans mentioned at the end?
    The list is crafted grammatically rather different from how Ian lists them
    The first three are named as peoples – Parthians, Medes, Elamites
    and then there are those whose homes are
    in Mesopotamia (is that really a different place from where Medes etc live?),
    Judea (well you would expect Jews from Judea to be in Jerusalem!),
    the Roman provinces of modern day Turkey (some of them – Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia),
    Egypt and the parts of Libya round Cyrene
    and then the last three are named more like the first group as peoples, not as residing in places:
    Romans – both Jews (same word stock as Judea!) and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.
    I am not sure why we move from those residing in/ residents of places to Romans, and then Cretans and Arabs (are they also Jews or are they non-Jews? – I am tempted to think non-Jews?)

    Arabs could be a reference to the neighbouring Nabateans, a key neighbour of Judea at the time, with marriage links to Herod, or it might be an updating of Moabites, Ishmaelites and Ammonites etc! Cretans make their other appearance in the New Testament courtesy of the support for a damning generalisation in Titus that Cretans are liars, brutes and gluttons.
    Marshall does not try and answer why the Arabs and Cretans are mentioned, nor does Pelikan in his more recent commentary. It is avoided!
    Is it possible that here we have an outcrop of a form of racism, or racial superiority, both expressed and maybe overcome. After the oral atlas swirls round and ends with Romans, it then doubles back and includes two of the more maligned sub-groups. Thankfully we find them included.
    The Titus text is blatant in its view of Cretans; is Luke also showing some similar values here? The church today wrestles with issues of race, racism and racial superiority. Our Scriptures may be give us a richer and also more difficult sets of texts which might mean we can tackle today’s issues better. The OT tensions with Moabites, Amalekites, Philistines, Canaanites etc, the NT context with Samaritans, even Galileans, and the reality of a Roman citizen, and others with different status: maybe these can help us tackle our modern challenges, and maybe the latent and explicit racial / tribal hostility and negativity reminds us that this is complex and hard and not simple. is it even present in the human writers?
    This is not to deny the neatness of the number 17, but it is to ask a different question, seeking an answer, but maybe that answer is a little more unsettling than we would like. But then the Holy Spirit is both the bringer of peace and unsettling.

  7. Perhaps the list was compiled from memory from all the author could remember meeting personally. Like trying to recall all the people one meets at an event. The author may not have known personally anyone from Greece. The list is accurate as far as was known. It may have looked susp8cious if it included all known categories.

    • What difference does it make. Spend more time on your knees and less time discussing a list. You have more time on your hands. Do the will of God and you will find God.

      • That’s a bit caustic surely? Did you read the article? It’s possible that it does make a difference…

        Otherwise (with no ill feelings and a smile)… A mirror might be useful… As in..
        “What difference does your comment make. Spend more time on your knees and less time saying that it doesn’t make a difference . You have more time on your hands.”

        And, otherwise 2…. “Do the will of God and you will find God”… How do you know the first without the second? Lucky guesses?


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