Are you perplexed by Pentecost? By far, the least understood part of the Death, Resurrection, & Pentecost event-complex is Pentecost. These three things are inseparable and unrepeatable works of Christ. And together they mark the beginning of a new era for God’s people. But most of us are much more familiar with the significance of His death and resurrection than with Pentecost.
If you are perplexed by Pentecost, notice that we are not the first people to ask: “What does this mean?” Luke tells us that those who were there were “bewildered” (Acts 2:6), they were “amazed and astonished” (Acts 2:7), they were “amazed and perplexed” (Acts 2:12). They said to each other, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12).
And the first interpretation of Pentecost put on someone’s lips in this story is, “They are filled with new wine.” In other words, ‘they must be drunk.’ Yes, our narrator, Luke, had told us earlier, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” But those looking on did not know this. They would have to listen to Peter, himself filled with the Holy Spirit, as he refuted this competing interpretation that they were drunk by noting that it was only 9 a.m. (“the third hour of the day,” Acts 2:15), it was too early for them to all be drunk.
Then when Peter begins to explain the significance of this perplexing and bewildering experience he quotes Joel who says that God will pour out His Spirit upon all flesh. This is actually quite interesting because when we explain Pentecost we might want to begin with the Tower of Babel. You should remember that in Genesis 11, God confused the language of the people and scattered them all over the earth. It is a productive line of biblical theology to observe that Pentecost in Acts 2 was a gathering of Jews from all over the place who could understand each other due to the supernatural intervention of the Spirit of God. However, while that is true, if we are going to understand Peter’s interpretation of what is going on, we also need to look at another story from the Torah.
The story begins for us in the background of Joel 2. Joel was prophesying that what Moses wished for in Numbers 11 would indeed take place.
Numbers 11 is the story of a grumbling people and their grumbling leader Moses. In scene 1: the people complained about their misfortunes and angered the Lord but then Moses interceded for the people and the fire God sent died down (Num 11:1-2). In scene 2: the people complained about not having meat. There are several verses explaining that the manna that they had to eat was quite good food – it was attractive looking and it tasted good (Num 11:7-9). They had no good reason to complain. But Moses did not intercede for them this time. Instead, he complained about the people. In judgment, God tells Moses that the people will get their meat – so much of it that they will regret having ever complained about not having any – and that Moses will get help. God said, “I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on” seventy of the elders. These elders would help Moses bear the burden of the people. Let us begin reading the story at verse 24:
Numbers 11:24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. 25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it. 26 Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” 30 And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp. (ESV)
So what happened here was that God took part of the Spirit He had put on Moses onto these seventy elders. When they received the Spirit, they briefly prophesied in order to show that they had received the Spirit. Two of these elders were not anywhere near Moses when the Spirit was poured on them and they prophesied too. Now Joshua was very concerned about this because it meant that the work of the Spirit of God did not need Moses present. And if so, then Moses’ authority as the unique prophetic mediator of Israel was in danger. Joshua’s concerns were founded because from this point forward in Numbers the people questioned Moses’ leadership. So Joshua urged Moses to stop them, but Moses instead of focusing on the judgment that God was bringing on his leadership focused on the blessing of the Spirit being poured out on others. Instead of grumbling again, Moses had learned his lesson and said that it would be wonderful for the Spirit to be poured out on everyone.
The Answer to the Story
So what is the answer to the story? This is what we find in the New Testament. The first answer to the story is that we need a prophet greater than Moses who will intercede for His people even when they are all ready to desert Him. Where Moses failed to intercede for his people – to go before God on their behalf, Jesus did not (John 17). Jesus offered up what is often called the “High Priestly Prayer,” which really should be called the “Prophet Greater than Moses Prayer of Intercession,” because intercessory prayer was part of the prophet’s job. But the more important answer for the purposes of our passage (Acts 2) is that the exalted Jesus poured out the Spirit He received from the Father onto all flesh. What Moses wished for, and Joel prophesied, Jesus accomplished.
And the people briefly prophesied. That is, Luke tells us that the people told the mighty works of God (Acts 2:11). We know that some people during the age of the apostles were given the gift of prophecy and the gift of speaking in tongues. But the people who prophesied on Pentecost were not given this gift perpetually. And just because everyone could hear everyone else tell the good news of the mighty works of God in their own dialect did not mean that speaking in tongues was a gift that remained the case for them. Instead, just like in the case of the seventy elders they briefly prophesied to show that the Holy Spirit had been poured out on them.
Notice the content of their prophecy. In Acts 2:11 the summary was simply that they told “the mighty works of God.” What were these mighty works? If you have any doubt, look at Peter’s prophetic comments. He explains the giving of the Spirit on Pentecost as the work of the exalted Christ. Beginning at verse 22, Peter speaks as the Spirit gave him utterance about Jesus Christ. “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst.” The mighty works were the works of Christ. His works included wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below. It is “this Jesus” who, “exalted at the right hand of God,” did the mighty work and wonders and signs of Pentecost (Acts 2:33).
This mighty work at Pentecost was a sign of what the Spirit-filled church would do. The gospel was to go to the ends of the earth, which meant that the good news would need to be spoken in many languages and dialects, just as everyone heard the gospel on that day in their own tongue. The Spirit of God would point all to Jesus.
So “what does this mean?” It means that Jesus had poured out the Spirit on all flesh. Therefore, if you want the gift of the Holy Spirit, to quote Peter,
“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
Bridging Contexts to Today (How to Get from the Ancient Text to Today)
Pentecost was a fundamentally unrepeatable event. So if there is not to be another Pentecost today, then how is our story different?
People today have the same need for union and communion with the risen Christ through the Spirit. And people today still need to seek to be filled with the Spirit of Christ.
1. With His resurrection, Jesus Christ became the possessor and conveyor of life in the Spirit. And with the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, he conveyed the Spirit to all flesh. In case anyone doubted that this was limited to the Jews and earlier converts to Judaism, the rest of Acts narrates how the Spirit also came to the Samaritans (mixed race of Jew and Gentile) and the Gentiles. The Spirit was poured out on all flesh, “all” here does not mean all in the sense that everyone who ever lived after Pentecost is saved, instead “all flesh” means to convey that the Spirit would not discriminate between Jews and Gentiles.
2. One difference between our situation and the opening of Acts 2 is that we do not need to speak in tongues as a prophetic sign that we have the Spirit. In fact, not everyone who receives the Spirit in the book of Acts briefly speaks in tongues like at the beginning of Acts 2 – there is no account of those that Peter preached to at the end of the chapter speaking in tongues or prophesying when they received the Spirit. Some do speak in tongues briefly when the Spirit comes to them elsewhere in Acts – these are unique situations though: for example, in the case of Cornelius’ household it served as a prophetic sign that the Spirit was poured out not just on the Jews but also on the Gentiles. While Peter preached in his home, the Holy Spirit fell on all who were there. The text says,
“For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God” (Acts 10:46).
When He reported this to show that the Spirit was for the Gentiles too, he said,
15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ (Acts 11:15-16)
Here we have an expansion of the scope of Pentecost. As Peter said, “the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.” “The beginning” that Peter means is when the Spirit poured out on Pentecost and caused them to speak in tongues so that others could understand the good news in their own language. It was not a repetition of Pentecost but the unfolding of Pentecost in a new setting where a sign was helpful to verify that it was the will of God that the gospel go to the Gentiles without them converting to being Jews first. But then when other Gentiles became disciples later, they did not speak in tongues when they received the Spirit because the sign had already shown the people that the Spirit was not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles.
3. Moreover, we have to appreciate something else that was unique in the situation in Acts. That is, there were believers before the Spirit was sent on Pentecost. Many of them had been baptized with water but they awaited Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire that came on Pentecost. For them there would be two-stages – one could be a Christian and not be baptized with the Holy Spirit yet. They were saved in the same way that we were, just as those in the Old Testament era were, but like most believers in the Old Testament era they did not possess the power of the Holy Spirit yet because of their timing in the history of redemption. However, for us, Scripture teaches that we who are Christians after Pentecost receive the gift of the Holy Spirit when we become Christians.
4. Not every believer during the age of the apostles had the gift of prophecy but they were all prophets. They were not prophets in the sense of revealing new things that have been hidden until now: all prophecy has as its content Jesus Christ and everything necessary for our salvation concerning Him we have in Scripture. This was not the case for the church during the age of the apostles when the Scriptures were not complete, but it is the case today. All Christians after Pentecost are prophets in the sense that as we have the Holy Spirit. We can confess the truth about the risen Christ to the world and He gives us the words we need to say to point people to Christ. And all Christians are prophets in that we can all offer up intercessory prayer on the behalf of others. The Reformers taught about the priesthood of all believers, we likewise may speak of the prophet-hood of all believers.
Christ continues to apply the benefit of Pentecost to us through a repentant faith that calls upon His name. Each of the points above in bridging contexts supports this application.
People today have the same need for union and communion with the risen Christ through the Spirit. And people today who have the Spirit still need to seek to be filled with the Spirit of Christ. The only answer to these needs is to call upon the name of the Lord.
38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
So are you going to repent? Are you going to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit?
There are signs that show the world today that you have the Holy Spirit. If you have received the Spirit, you will show concern for the poor. For Luke it was as Christ was anointed with the Spirit of the Lord God that he brought good news to the poor (cf. Isa 61, Luke 4:18). And He ends this section on Pentecost by noting that they sold their possessions and belongings and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need (2:45). If you have received the Spirit, you will devote yourself to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, you will worship and fellowship with other Christians daily, and you will be numbered with the saved. (Acts 2:42, 46-47). In short, you will be a disciple of Christ.
The paradigm for receiving the Spirit today is not the opening to Acts 2 but the ending. If anyone says: But you did not speak in tongues and prophesy so how can you know that you have the Spirit? Your reply can be the same as the Magisterial Reformers to the radicals (oft-called Anabaptists but not to be confused with modern anabaptists) on the issue of miracles. The Anabaptists said that they had miracles to support their views. The Reformers replied, ‘We have all the miracles of the Bible to support our teachings.’ Likewise we might say, ‘We have all of the cases of speaking in tongues and prophesying when the Spirit came upon the people in Acts as signs that we indeed have the Spirit because we have a repentant faith.’ After all, those at the end of Acts 2 are never said to speak in tongues.