Most of us have been taught that Pentecost is the Church’s birthday, and in a way that is true, but as recorded in Acts it is very much rooted in Judaism and a renewal of the covenant as the people of God. The renowned Biblical Scholar after Vatican II, Raymond Brown, insisted that if we are to understand Pentecost as recorded in Acts we must first understand that this festival and the other two, Passover and Tabernacles, that the Jews as pilgrims went up to Jerusalem, came to have salvific significances that originally had associations with the feasts celebrated when the Hebrews were a nomadic and agricultural people.
Originally the Hebrews, as seen in the lives of the Patriarchs, were a shepherding people who for six months of the year had to move their flocks along the water beds, as after April there was no more rain until October. Before setting out the shepherds would offer a new born lamb or a goat to God to pray to be able to find enough pasture for their flocks for the next six months. This was naturally a Pastoral Feast and was referred to as Passover with the lamb or goat known as the Passover. When they became an agriculture people, the livelihood of the people were celebrated in three feasts. At roughly the same time in April they offered the first grain of their barley harvest. This festival of Unleavened Bread lasted for six days and before cutting the first harvest, all leaven bread was discarded. About seven weeks later, usually in May or June the main harvest, the wheat crop, took place, and the first sheaths or first fruits were offered to Yahweh (Lev. 23, Ex. 23, 34) and was known as the Feast of Weeks. In Autumn, late September or October, it was the time for harvesting the fruits and especially the grapes and making wine. The vines were usually grown on hillsides, but the farmers lived in a village. Thus in harvest time they made huts or booths in the field to protect their fruits from thieves and animals. The huts were covered with foliage in order to let light come in and here the families would eat their meals under the evening skies. It was always a joyful and thankful time. Later in the history of the Israelites these feasts were attached to salvation events that Yahweh had done for His people. Passover and unleavened bread became associated with the migration to Egypt and its eventual exodus from bondage. So the spring lamb sacrifice became attached to God passing over the homes of the Israelites when their doors were marked with the blood of the sacrifice lambs. As they had to leave in haste, they ate in haste which meant that it was unleavened bread that was prepared for the journey and not leaven that takes time to prepare. The week of Tabernacles became attached to the wandering time in the wilderness when the Israelites lived in tents or booths. So it expressed those forty years in the desert before reaching the Promised Land. Both these festivals are mentioned in the Johannine Gospel when Jesus also went up to Jerusalem to join in the respective celebrations. What of the feast of Weeks as being salvific? It is not mentioned as being kept in the Gospels, but it is in an apocryphal book of the first century, and more importantly it appears in the calendar of the Essene community. Members of this community had withdrawn to the desert near the Dead Sea to prepare for the Last Times. They believed that Yahweh was about to deliver His people once again and renew His covenant and so they were in the desert preparing for this coming. Like their ancestors they were being led back to the Promised Land. In the Essene Calendar Pentecost was the most important event as all members renewed their covenant, and new members were admitted to the community after a preparation of two years by pledging to the covenant. The Essenes truly believed in the renewal of Israel. Through the Dead Sea Scrolls, contemporary with Jesus’ life, we know that later Rabbinic interpretation of the events of old had calculated that it had taken approximately fifty days to journey from Egypt to Mt. Sinai. This of course was the occasion that Yahweh gave the Law and Covenant to Moses. God had called these stragglers who were no people to be His people and He would be their God. Furthermore in later rabbinic teaching it was said that when God spoke in the thunder and lightning on Mt. Sinai, Moses climbed the mountain to speak with him. The people below on the plain witnessed all this through mighty wind and tongues of fire. It was further maintained that when Yahweh thundered on Mt. Sinai He invited all people to be His, but only the Hebrews responded. In his writing about this occasion, the Jewish historian, Philo, suggested that the people knew of this as angels carried this message to them in tongues. Pentecost meant the renewal of giving of the Law and the covenant that Yahweh made with His people at Mt. Sinai. So it would seem that the renewal of the covenant at Pentecost, the Greek Word for fifty days, was known in the early first century A.D. and certainly by the author of Acts. So the First of Weeks, now Pentecost, became with the other feasts, an integral part of the whole salvific process not only for the Jews who saw themselves as being the people who Yahweh has led out Egypt, through the desert and brought to the promised land but also for the first Christians who we must remember were also Jews. Amongst those early Jewish Christians, especially those living in the Johannine community Jesus himself is the paschal lamb that is slain for the sin of all. He dies at the time when the lamb is slain for the Passover as we have recorded in the fourth Gospel. Paul also would refer to Christ in Passover terms. “Christ is our Passover, therefore let us keep the feast, not with the old leavened of malice and wickedness but with the new of truth and sincerity (I Cor. 5. 6 – 8). The offering of the first sheaf of harvest was soon seen as a symbol of the resurrection, especially illustrated by Paul in his resurrection theology when he spoke of Christ being the first fruits of all them that have slept (I Cor. 15. 20, 23). This first fruit, the sheath, is a thanksgiving offering and the assurance that all the sheaves would be gathered, and so in turn all will be resurrected. Now to the beginning of Acts - The author has prepared for this occasion by ensuring that there are the Twelve, and just as there were forty years wandering in the desert before reaching the Promised Land, and Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness too tempted by Satan in preparation for His ministry, so in Acts there are Forty Days too to prepare for the renewal of Israel at Pentecost. Having become one of the festivals for which all Jews travelled up to Jerusalem, fifty days after Passover and for Jesus’ disciples, those events of the first Easter Day or would have found the disciples travelling from Galilee where they had returned to their fishing nets. The author of Acts uses this feast as the occasion for the renewal of the people of Israel and their Covenant. Jerusalem is of course filled with pilgrims at festival time and the Twelve with Mary, the women, other disciples and members of Jesus’ family were all gathered in the home of one of the disciples. What were their thoughts? Were they thinking about their own history and how their ancestors of old had made that trek from Egypt to Sinai? Did they ponder on those events that unfolded on this holy mount? Did their minds stray to the infidelity of the Hebrews after agreeing to be God’s people and obey His Laws? Were they recalling and sharing those remarkable events seven weeks ago? Wherever their thoughts or discussions were, the whole atmosphere was changed in a twinkling of an eye. The episode that followed as described by the author is so reminiscent of the Sinai experience. Noise is almost unbearable, and tongues of fire symbolised something divine was happening – in this case, the outpouring of the Spirit upon them, that gift promised by their dear Lord before His death.
This renewal of the covenant through the power of the Holy Spirit had to be a noisy and visual business as was the giving of the covenant on Mt. Sinai. As expressed in a fourth century hymn:
From out of the heavens a rushing noise,
Came like the tempest’s sudden voice,
And mingled with the Apostles’ prayer,
Proclaiming loud that God was there. (N.E.H. p. 206).
Recall now that rabbinic tradition that on the holy mountain when God thundered, He was calling all people to Him, but it was only the Hebrews who responded. In this renewed covenant all peoples must hear. So in a very orderly pattern the author of Acts listed all those races of people who were not only in Jerusalem for the festival but were members of the Roman Empire. Beginning from the farthest part of this Empire there were Parthians, Medes and Elamites (modern day Iran) Mesopotamia (Iraq), and travelling eastward there were inhabitants of Judaea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phyrgia and Pamphylia, Egypt and Libya, and from the heart of the civilised world, Rome. All these needed to hear the God thundering again. As a sideline by the time Acts was written these people had heard about the new covenant of grace. And of course it has always been debatable whether the disciples actually spoke in tongues and if all present understood.
More important I think for the author of Acts was to see that this occasion is a renewing of the covenant, not a new covenant, that would come later as we see in Paul’s writings, but I suspect too there is also the subtleness of it representing the beginning of a new order/creation through the Spirit. The gift of the Spirit makes one a new person, coming alive from being dead in sin. This recalls that first beginning of creation when the Holy Spirit breathed life into a deadless mass and brought life in the water, the air and land. God’s breath also caused man to be created, but it did not make him an immortal soul but gave him the potential for it. The Spirit is the giver of life and when that breath ceases man dies. As the psalmist expressed it, “when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust” (Ps. 104. 29). Job understood this when he uttered, “the Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33.4) as He had given to other living creatures. When God gave Adam the gift of life He gave Him the potential for life that would not expire. Theologically the emphasis from what we call “the Fall” has been death as the punishment for Adam’s disobedience. The consequence of that as St. Paul rightly interpreted was that all creation had been groaning waiting to be liberated from its bondage of decay. Hosea, the prophet of the Northern Kingdom in the time of Jeroboam II spoke of the land mourning and grieving for the wickedness perpetrated upon it (Hos. 4. 1 – 3). Now the Spirit descending at Pentecost, fifty days after Easter will renew and rejuvenate the disciples of Christ who will be able to impart this powerful Spirit to all who believe. Of course this is the purpose of the author in writing his second book. Before that eventuates Peter as the spokesman for the Twelve preached. (Remember that the Twelve represent the twelve tribes of Israel and will sit on the twelve thrones to judge these tribes. We have an example of Peter doing just that when he judged firstly Ananias and then his wife Sapphira when they lied about their possessions (Acts 5. 1 - 10). That is why before the renewal of Israel could take place, Judas’ place must be filled in the first chapter of Acts). What did the author of Acts use as the text for the Pentecostal pesher (an interpretation of scripture)? For it is not the words of Peter, it is the author’s interpretation of what he wanted spoken – it was a passage from the prophet Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (2. 28). So let’s look at its context. Joel is one of the many prophets who prophesied in the midst of natural distress and disaster. Before this verse in Joel there was an invasion of locusts which caused devastation of the land. Anyone who has experienced the plague of locusts going through the land knows what a frightening and noisy experience it is. It is like an army with the Lord at its head and his forces are beyond number. Thus “the day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?” (Joel 2. 11). Then suddenly the tone changes. The Lord who has been head of this devouring army appeals to the people to repent. “Even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” What is involved in this repentance? It is basically the message of all the prophets, what we know as metanoia:
Rend your hearts and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity (2.12 – 13).
What a wonderful outreaching by the Lord. This is of course reflects that covenant made at Sinai. “I will be your God and you will be my people.” It also reflects Moses’ appeal to God to spare the Israelites after their apostasy (Ex. 32 – 34) and Yahweh relents. This we see in those next verses in Joel. He has forgiven His people. He will restore the land ravished by the locusts so that you know that I am in the midst of your land and that I am your God. Not only that I shall send “you grain, new wine and oil” but I will “satisfy you fully” (2. 25 – 7). The imagery this conjures is a new land blooming in fresh greenness and the abundance of fruits, just as God’s grace is abundant. Yet it is not only people and the land but everything in the cosmos is part of God’s salvation and redemptive plan. That God should repay the Israelites in kindness and mercy when they don’t deserve it manifests that His mercy is boundless.
“You shall now that I am in your midst” prefaces that verse “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams; your young men shall see visions” (2. 28). Just as the Lord poured out rain to rejuvenate the land, now My Spirit will be poured out upon all, irrespective of gender, slave or free, young or old. Paul will later pick up this in Galatians, when he stated “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3. 28). Yet it is not only people but the whole cosmic that will see the signs in “fire and billows of smoke” reminiscent of Sinai. But “the sun will be turned to darkness and blood” that conjures Calvary. But from that darkness resurrected a new creation as seen on this day of Pentecost in that pesher put into the mouth of Peter.
The quoted text ended with those salvific words from Joel, “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (2.32). What beautiful words they are for all, especially sinners trapped in their sins and who do not know the Lord. “They who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” in this preacher’s mind could mean only one thing – salvation in Jesus who had recently been crucified at the hands of the wicked, but God raised Him up
When that first pesher was delivered the majority of those listening would have known the reason for this text being selected. They would have known that this chapter of Joel began with those words of terror and noise but ended with such promise and hope for all. All peoples could now hear the voice of God and respond.
There is another symbolic reason for this text from Joel being used in connection with the beginning of that ministry by the Apostles. The author of the twin Gospel and Acts has many parallels. If we cast our minds back to chapter four in Luke when Our Lord begins his ministry in the synagogue, He picks up a scroll and reads. What text is chosen? That from Trito- Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. …. To bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” ( Is. 61. 1 -3; Lk 4. 18 - 19).
This text also has messianic overtones. The language is both regal and servitude. The former speaks of his anointing as king and the second of kingship and what will this be like. When that Pentecost pesher continued what is preached? - the interpretation of those words of Jesus when He rolled up the scroll, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.” The One who will save you as we approach the end-times, is Jesus, a prophet, not unlike Moses whose teaching is authenticated by God but whom you crucified but God raised. David, the idolised king, also spoke prophetically of the risen Lord in psalms 16. 8- 11 and 110. 1. It is noticeable that Peter does something that Jesus never did, He spoke about Jesus, whereas the Lord never actually spoke of Himself in the Synoptic tradition but to listen and repent. His ministry was one of preaching and healing. After hearing the pesher, the people present said, “What must we do?” Peter’s response was to do as Joel and other prophets had all been saying, as of course the Lord Himself - Repent. Yet there was another requirement – baptism. When Jesus lived there were villagers who believed in Him but as believers, the village had not any tangible sign of this. Those first believers decided there had to be a visible sign to show membership and belonging. The basic Israelite concept is that Yahweh chose His people to save, and so the renewal of that covenant must manifest this. This was to be baptism with water and in the name of Jesus. I personally find it very interesting that those first followers of Jesus took baptism as the symbol of being a follower of Christ. Interestingly, because Jesus himself never gave an explicit order to baptise. Perhaps you want to jump on me and say, “hang one, how does the Matthean Gospel end? To go out into all the world and baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Most biblical scholars maintain that this ending reflects the practice of what was happening some fifty years after Our Lord has ascended to heaven when this gospel was written. However Jesus in the Gospel had preceded his preaching in the synagogue by having the Spirit descend upon Him (Lk. 4. 1). So if Jesus had been baptised so must those who believe in Him Another reason I think for this insistence on baptism would have been that baptism had been practised by John Baptist and some of Jesus’ disciples had been his disciples first and that it seemed a natural thing to continue John’s way of repentance but now confessing belief in the Lord Jesus as water flowed over them. Or as Raymond Brown suggested the baptised made a profession of believing in Jesus ( the first creed) as we see in the case of the man born blind from birth in the Johannine Gospel (Ch. 10). Don’t forget it is our belief in Jesus as the Son of God that makes us Christians. It is not leading a good life or doing good deeds that makes us Christians – many do these who are not motivated by Christian identity. Don’t forget too years later we meet up with an important person in the early Christian life, Apollos who had come to Ephesus from Alexandria, and was still only aware of John’s baptism. Prisca, one of Paul’s co-workers soon taught him what was what to be a Christian (Acts. 18. 26).
In describing the first Christian baptism perhaps too that beautiful passage from Ezekiel, where cleansing with water symbolised regeneration by the Spirit, was close to the author’s mind. It is one of the most beautiful passages in the O.T. and I think more impressive than the dry bone account, which follows shortly afterwards.
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean, I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you, I will removed from your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ez. 36. 25 – 7). Isn’t that what Pentecost was about for Jews and those first Jewish Christians? Obedience to the Law but the Spirit enables the obedience God demands. There are elements here of Jeremiah’s message that from henceforth Yahweh will write His laws in the heart and not in stone (Jer. 31. 33). This will come the new covenant that He is making with His people. If this Ezekiel passage was not in the thought process in that first Christian sermon, it certainly was on Paul’s when in Romans Eight he speaks of “the Spirit of life” setting a Christian free from the Law in relation to sin and death from our fallen nature to obey God. However in the death and resurrection of Christ by which we receive the Spirit, is “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful human nature but according to the Spirit” (8. 1 – 4). For Paul this was the same Spirit he knew from the Scriptures and the Spirit he knew through the risen Lord. As one would expect that after being baptised Peter promised that they too will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. That gift is universal for all who believe in Jesus as their Saviour and various manifestations of that will be bestowed on people. For example amongst those early Christians some were called to be preachers, some teachers, some the gifts of tongues and some the interpreting of tongues (I Cor. Ch. 12). When we come to Paul’s preaching it is beginning to be clear that it is not so much a renewal of the Sinai covenant but a new covenant in Christ through the Spirit for Christians, both Jews and Gentiles. How often does he tell those early Christians that the Law has been superseded by grace. Pick up Galatians and read it and you will find how he blasts those who think that by observing the Law they will obtain eternal salvation. The old has been superseded by the Holy Spirit at baptism when the catechumen is baptised into the death of Christ, and then rises to new life through His resurrection. This is the new covenant of the Holy Spirit that eventually the author of Acts will also have us see in the preaching of Paul to the Gentiles. The embracing of Gentiles to the Way of the Lord fulfilled God’s invitation on Mt. Sinai for all people to be My people and I will be there God.