Acts 2:1-13: The New Testament writers in general affirm that after the death of Jesus his followers were united, guided and empowered by the experience of the risen Christ, who empowered them by the Holy Spirit to carry on his work. All agree that the church began not by human initiative, but in the conviction that the presence and power of God (=the risen Christ, the Holy Spirit) generated the renewed Christian community. The New Testament authors have different ways of conceptualizing and expressing this. (People’s New Testament Commentary). John’s Gospel has the Spirit come on the day of the resurrection – Jesus breathes into the disciples the Holy Spirit. In Luke, the giving of the Spirit is a separate and dramatic event. Pentecost was a Jewish festival originally in celebration of the wheat harvest. It later lost some of the agricultural associations and came to be a celebration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Luke’s use of this day might be an attempt to parallel the older covenant with a new covenant. Of course, in the Christian church “Pentecostal” has come to carry with it very different associations. We will speak more about this as we continue to read through the New Testament.
When the Spirit arrives it arrives dramatically – with fire and wind. Both the Greek and Hebrew words for “wind” are also the words for “spirit.” Tongues of fire also appear. “Filled with the Holy Spirit” is “a common biblical expression for being empowered by God” (People’s New Testament Commentary). What they will be empowered to do specifically in this context is witness to their faith in a variety of languages. Speaking in tongues was a common and valued experience in some streams of early Christianity, especially in the Pauline churches. It was the expression of a deep religious experience the could not be expressed in ordinary human language…. It occurs in other religions besides Christianity and seems to be a universal phenomenon of religious experience that, whenever there is deep religious feeling, some members of the community give expression to this feeling in ecstatic speech. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Here, however, such ecstatic speech also becomes speech in languages understood by others. Luke is wanting to make important statements not only about the power of the Holy Spirit, but also about the church that the Spirit is at work building. The church will be a universal community made up of people from many languages and cultures. The church needs to find ways to communicate with the varieties of the earth’s people. This aspect of the story is the more important, though Luke maintains that God’s Spirit is able to do remarkable things in human life, including inspiring ecstatic speech. There are echoes here of the story in Genesis about the tower of Babel, where human arrogance is seen to lead to estrangement in the human community. Here the Spirit is seen as a power to overcome alienation and estrangement – between God and human and between humans. The Spirit’s work remains the same today.
Luke’s telling of the coming of the Spirit also acknowledges that the church has its roots in Judaism. All these people from different countries are described as devout Jews. Just as Judaism could unite persons of different languages and cultures, though it remained more tied to a language and culture, so could faith in Jesus as the Christ unite persons from different backgrounds, and it would end up doing that much more successfully than Judaism. The initial reaction of the crowd is perplexity and amazement. What does all this mean? When God’s Spirit acts, it is not always self-evident. The questions of the gathered crowd provide a context for the “sermon” to follow.
Acts 2:14-36: Here Peter delivers the first Christian sermon. He seeks to interpret what is happening and in light of that also share the good news about Jesus as the Christ. Peter begins where some of the listeners are, and he rejects the “drunkenness” explanation for what is happening, affirming that God is at work here. He uses the shared Scripture of the Jews to speak to what is happening. His citation of Joel is making a dramatic claim, that the Spirit of God which would bring in a new way of life, a new reality, was at work here. “Luke frequently quotes and alludes to Scripture in order to emphasize that God’s new manifestation in Jesus is in continuity with the divine saving acts toward Israel” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). It would be a mistake to view the Hebrew Scriptures as documents whose primary intention was to point toward Jesus and what would happen with Jesus and the church. They arise out of the encounter between the Hebrew people and God, and were intended to form the relationship between God and the Hebrew people. That these same Scriptures can be used to interpret the on-going work of God in Jesus is a claim made by the Christian community. Again, the point Luke is making is that the same God who touched the lives of the Hebrew people is the God at work in Jesus and the Spirit. The Spirit is available to all people now.
From this quotation of the Scripture which is meant to frame the experience of the Spirit, Peter moves to a discussion of the Jesus story. Jesus is one through whom God worked signs, wonders, deeds of power. But Jesus was put to death. Here Luke uses language that would seem to hold this whole group of Jews responsible for the death of Jesus. This would not be historically accurate. Jewish leaders and Roman authorities were the ones responsible for the death of Jesus. For Luke, however, it seems that all who are unwilling to be open to what God has done in Jesus have some part in his death. His way of putting things no doubt also has something to do with the on-going disputes between Jewish Christians and synagogue Jews during Luke’s own time. The more important point in Peter’s sermon is that while Jesus death may have seemed like something irredeemably tragic, God was able to redeem it, to use it according to God’s own purposes. God used the death of Jesus to break the power of death itself. Wherever we find “death” in life, we are to trust that God can break through it. Again, the Hebrew Scriptures are cited as a way to understand how God continued to work in the life of Jesus, and even through his death. Luke understands that in the resurrection of Jesus, God vindicated the kind of life Jesus had lived as the way of life, the way God wants people to live. Luke uses “life” as identical with “salvation” and “entering the kingdom of God. (People’s New Testament Commentary). God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah – these two titles, one from the Roman culture and one from the Jewish culture. Jesus way is the way of life – not the Roman way, not the Jewish way as understood by some of the Jewish leaders (though deeply Jewish in other senses).
Acts 2:37-47: Peter’s preaching evokes a powerful response. Those who hear are “cut to the heart.” Good preaching is meant to touch persons deeply – heart and head. Out of their experience they ask what they should do next. They are to repent (turn their lives to the Jesus way of life) and be baptized and the promise is for forgiveness and the Spirit. It is a promise Luke sees extends to all people. From its beginnings, the church was meant to reach out to all people – how often we have failed to do that.
The new life to which those who responded turned is pictured in these verses beautifully. It is a life of learning and teaching, of fellowship, of prayer. It is a life that reaches out to others in ways that will sometimes awe. It is a life meant to be lived together with others. It is a life of generosity and sharing. This picture is idealistic, and one does not have to read very far in the New Testament to know that this way of life was not always maintained. Yet ideals can inspire us, can move us. As you read this picture of the early church, what inspires you? How might your life be different? How might life in the church be different?